Not every story includes a prop, but when it does, it is worth our time to pay attention to it, and to ask why it might have been mentioned. With a couple examples, I hope to illustrate the potential significance of a prop when analyzing a story.
Example #1: Peter Denying Christ
Our first illustration comes from the book of John. In 18:18. Jesus had just been arrested in Gethsemane, and Peter, with another disciple, followed Him to the courtyard of the high priest.
Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. (John 18:18, ESV, emphasis added)
As Christian Vogel suggests, the expression “charcoal fire” is an interesting detail that the writer did not have to add. In fact, the entire verse appears to be unnecessary to the plot of that particular narrative. Yet the author has deemed this somehow significant. Notice that he is not content to tell us that they were standing by the fire. He adds an entire sentence to mention that Peter also was standing by the fire, warming himself–an idea repeated yet again in verse 25: Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself.
Three times the visual image of Peter standing by the fire is present in John 18, the chapter depicting the trial of Jesus. While Peter stands by the fire, he betrays Jesus two times after having already renounced him once while standing at the door. As prophesized, the rooster’s crow brought with it the bitter awareness of his perfidy. The story convincingly invites us to picture Peter standing by a charcoal fire during his betrayal, but leaves us with an unanswered question: what is the purpose of this prop?
The significance of the expression “charcoal fire,” says Vogel, becomes evident only as we continue reading through John and come across it again four chapters later, in John 21. After His death and resurrection, Jesus appears to disciples, for the third time by the Sea of Tiberias. Peter wanted to go fishing and six other disciples decided to join him, but they caught nothing all night.
At daybreak, Jesus, standing on the shore, asked them about their fishing success, instructing them to cast the next on the right. This they did, and they caught 153 fish–too much to haul into the boat. Eager to meet Jesus, Peter jumped into the water and swam Him while the others dragged the chock-full net to the shore. “When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread” (John 21:9, ESV, emphasis added). This is certainly an interesting detail for someone familiar with John 18. It is all the more curious considering that “John 18:18 and 21:9 are the only two places in the entire gospel of John where a fire of coals is mentioned.”
Jesus and the disciples ate breakfast around the fire, and then Jesus engaged Peter in one of the most moving dialogues in all of Scripture. Three times He asked Peter if he loved Him, three times Peter answered in the affirmative, and three times Jesus entrusted to him the care of His sheep and lambs. Not long ago he had betrayed His Lord in the high priest’s courtyard, over a charcoal fire.
The repeated question, calling to mind his betrayal, grieved Peter (John 21:17), but the threefold denial had to be recognized before forgiveness and restoration could take place. That morning, by a charcoal fire, Jesus gave Peter an opportunity to start over. As Vogel eloquently put it, Jesus
…takes Peter back to the scene of chapter 18, back to the place where Peter betrayed Him and there in effect asks Him: how do you really feel about Me? And thus He gives him the opportunity to relive the scene in the courtyard and to make a different decision.
Example #2: Belshazzar’s Death
The narrative of Belshazzar’s judgment and death in Daniel 5 abounds in props, some of which are mentioned several times:
|Props||Verses||Number of mentions|
|The writing (on the wall)||7, 8, 15, 16, 17, 24, 25||7|
|Vessels of gold and silver||2, 3, 23||3|
|Fingers of a human hand/hand||5 (2X0, 23||3|
|Gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone||4, 23||2|
|Purple clothes||7, 16||2|
|Chain of gold||7, 16||2|
|Dew of heaven||21||1|
A study of all these props would certainly be interesting, but here I will focus on two: the lampstand, and the writing on the plaster of the wall. Two things raise curiosity about these props: (1) the lampstand is temple language, and (2) together these two props help us partly visualize the position of the writing on the wall in reference to the lampstand: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand” (Daniel 5:5, ESV, emphases added).
The question to answer is why the writer might want us to know that the writing on the wall was opposite the lampstand. To discover this, we will very briefly explore the temple structure. Exodus 40:22-25 reveals that:
(22) He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the veil, (23) and arranged the bread on it before the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (24) He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, (25) and set up the lamps before the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (ESV, emphases added)
It appears that, in the temple of God, the lampstand was opposite the showbread. This means that the position of the writing on the wall in Belshazzar’s palace in reference to the lampstand mirrored the position of the showbread in God’s temple, in reference to the lampstand.
The next question is why the writer would want us to understand this parallelism, and even more important, why God chose to write precisely on this location of the wall. To answer this, we need to find out more about the table of the showbread. Exodus 37:10-16 is a key passage which describes the table, including its construction and what was placed on it. Verse 16 reads:
And he made the vessels of pure gold that were to be on the table, its plates and dishes for incense, and its bowls and flagons with which to pour drink offerings. (ESV)
The temple vessels that Belshazzar asked for, the temple vessels that he and his noblemen, his wives and concubines drank wine from, used to be located in the temple opposite the lampstand. Not only did they used to be located there, they belonged there, and were employed in holy temple service. Any other use had been strictly forbidden by God.
In a powerful, ironic, and immediate manifestation of justice, God, who holds Belshazzar’s breath in his hand (vs. 23) flips it outside down and pours his breath out as His fingers write his death sentence.
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.