An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 4b: Temporal Markers)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 4b: Temporal Markers)

PC: Aron Visuals via Unsplash

Along with spatial markers, temporal markers contour the background to a story. Anything that answers the question “when/how long” is a temporal marker. For example: at that time, the following day, as he was coming, two years. Temporal settings also make reference to various background aspects: socio-economic (time of sheepshearers), political (when the kings go out to battle), religious (Day of Atonement, feast of Purim).

Example #1: Christ in Gethsemane

In the previous article, we looked at how spatial markers emphasize the struggle of Jesus in Gethsemane (recorded in Matthew 26:36-46) before his arrest and trial. The passage also includes several temporal markers, listed in order in the following table:

 

Temporal Markers Reference
Then 36
Then 38
Then 40
One hour 40
A second time 42
Again 43
Again 44
The third time 44
Then 45
(The hour is) at hand 45
(My betrayer is) at hand 46

 

The temporal markers parallel the spatial markers and reveal similar motifs of tension, wavering, and distress. The repetition of again intensifies the portrayal of Jesus’ struggle, and Matthew’s inclusion of the numerals a second time, and a third time strengthens the tension. The mention of one hour in verse 40 suggests a prayer length that may be indicative of intensity. In the last part of the story, the repetition of at hand suggests the urgency of the time, and the concentration of the last two temporal markers on the nearness of the betrayal is conveyed through a progressive revelation of this impending immediacy:

  • The hour is at hand
  • The Son of Man is being betrayed
  • My betrayer is at hand.

In Matthew 26:36-46, the spatial and temporal markers offer the reader remarkable insight into Jesus’ internal life regarding the sacrifice He made. Because of this glimpse that the narrative gives us into the deep distress of Jesus, we are “enabled to grasp the seriousness of the settled purpose of God which calls for his Son to be rejected and killed in Jerusalem.”[1] Our appreciation for his sacrifice grows as we see more clearly the difficulty Jesus overcame in making this momentous decision.

Example #2: Peter and Cornelius

An interesting example of the use of temporal markers is Acts 10, which recounts the meeting between the apostle Peter and the gentile Cornelius. In this section, I will focus only on the use of a few temporal markers that illustrate a connection between Peter and Cornelius, both leaders in their circles of influence who meet as a consequence of one of the most stunning divine interventions recorded in Scripture. The leaders’ commitment to God can partly be observed through the use of temporal markers.

Notice how in verse 1 Cornelius is described as a God-fearing man who prayed to God always–a temporal marker which points to a man who put God first in everything and relied on Him constantly. A second temporal marker with reference to Cornelius can be found in verse 3, where he has a vision at the ninth hour. This would be three o’clock in the afternoon, a time of the day which coincides with the Jews daily prayer at the temple.[2] It seems that, in addition to praying to the Jewish God, he also followed the Jewish prayer times. His commitment to God is palpable.

The narrator also includes a number of temporal markers about Peter. First, his vision took place at the sixth hour. The sixth hour was midday, and it was not a regular prayer time (9 a.m. or 3 p.m.).[3] Noon is also not a typical meal time (which was mid-morning and mid-afternoon). Thus, the temporal marker offered in the story suggests that Peter was likely given a vision after a fast.

What is interesting is that the temporal markers help us decipher these things, and in doing so, we learn that both main characters in this narrative are men of prayer who fast, seeking God’s will and favor. It is such two people that God connects through direct divine intervention. It is such people who are open to receive God’s message, and in so doing they break down longstanding barriers of prejudice and bigotry. The account of Cornelius’s baptism is the first public conversion recorded in Scripture, and the Bible carefully details key aspects of this meeting–such as their commitment to God, some of them with the aid of temporal markers.

 

Spatial and temporal markers can be analyzed separately or together. Sometimes spatial markers emphasize other aspects of the story than temporal markers. Other times, both work in conjunction to highlight certain key elements and spiritual insights. As a last example in this article we will take a close look at both spatial and temporal markers in Daniel 6:10-23.

Example #3: Daniel and the Lion’s Den

Daniel 6:10-23 is the story of Daniel being saved by God from the lions’ den. This is a story of a righteous man who was envied to the point of death, despite the fact that even his worst enemies recognized his integrity. The markers are listed in the following tables:

 

Spatial Markers Reference
Home 10
In his upper room 10
Toward Jerusalem 10
Down on his knees 10
Before his God 11
Before the king 12
Into the den of lions 12
Into the den of lions 16
On the mouth of the den 16
To his palace 18
Before him 18
To the den of lions 19
To the den 20
Up out of the den 23
Up out of the den 23

 

 

Temporal Markers Reference
When Daniel knew (that the writing was signed)

 

10
Three times 10
That day 10
Since early days 10
Within thirty days 12
Three times a day 13
When he heard these words 14
Till the going down of the sun 14
The night 18
Very early in the morning 19

 

In verse 10, four temporal markers interlace with four spatial markers to highlight the action of prayer central to the story: “Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.”

This brief exposition of Daniel’s action of prayer is packed with temporal and spatial markers that reveal a man who finds no room and no time for hesitation. His determination, grown out of years of prayer habits since childhood, orients him in this time of crisis and ensures his steadfast loyalty to God.

Daniel’s composure and inner-peace, which create a calm atmosphere in his room, are superbly contrasted with Darius’ anxiety and the palace where no music plays and food is absent.

Two spatial markers entwined with three temporal markers express the king’s angst. When he heard the outcome of his decree (6:14), he labored until the going down of the sun to deliver Daniel (6:14). Notice how the narrator employs parallelism to underscore the contrast. Each character takes immediate action when they hear gloomy news. Daniel prays–which should cost him his life, while Darius seeks a solution whereby Daniel would not lose his life.

But Daniel ends up being thrown in the den of lions, and Darius goes to the king’s palace where he spends the night awake and in distress, without food or music. The spatial distance between the place of projected death (the den) and the place where the death was decreed (the palace), as well as the time distance between Daniel’s casting into the den and the next day (the night) causes the king anxiety. He is eager for this distance to end and with it his misery to be dispelled. He not only waits for this ending awake, he even shortens it as very early next morning he goes to Daniel den in haste.

The contrast between Daniel’s calm and Darius’s anxiety can be interpreted in various ways. For me, the most obvious difference is that between the calm of the persecuted and the anxiety of the persecutor. While both Daniel and Darius held some sort of belief in God (evident in 6:16 where Darius states God’s deliverance as fact, as well as when he speaks to a presumably alive man surrounded by hungry lions), their experience with God is different. Daniel’s calm is the calm of one fully surrendered to God, one who is willing to go to death for his love and belief in Him.

Darius’s anxiety, while also suggesting his love for Daniel, is the anxiety of the oppressor. The history is witness to the fact that there is more inner-peace in being persecuted for serving God than being engaged in persecuting God’s servant, even a God one believes in, and even when the persecuted is a beloved one.

While much more can be said about this passage, I hope this illustration was helpful in showing how the use of spatial and temporal markers can help us grasp a story in greater depth, and in doing so appreciate spiritual lessons that can orient us in our daily life and decisions.

Your Turn to Practice:

Going carefully over Genesis 37:12-36, list the temporal markers in the order in which they appear.

  • Do you notice any patterns?
  • Are the temporal markers congruent with any theme observed in analyzing the spatial markers?
  • In what way do the temporal markers support the plot development in this story, and what spiritual lessons might they point to?

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 temporal markers in the passage above.

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

______

Notes.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing House, 2007), p. 1002.

[2] David B. Woods, Interpreting Peter’s Vision in Acts 10:9–16, (Conspectus, South African Theological Seminary, March 2012, Vol. 13), p. 185.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 388.

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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.