An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 5a: Repetition as a Literary Device)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 5a: Repetition as a Literary Device)

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Repetition is the most frequently-used literary technique in Hebrew writing. As Robert Alter suggests, this is partly due to the fact that the stories compiled into Scripture were originally meant to be read aloud before the original audience.[1]

Unlike a written narrative, where you can go back and review some missed points, in an oral exposition of a story, the repetitions help highlight the key ideas. Repetitions also add to the aesthetic quality of the narrative. The biblical narratives include repetitions of words, phrases, sentences, ideas, actions, and even entire stories. Let’s explore some examples of each.

Words

The repetition of words is sometimes used to express a heightened emotion. For example, the repetition of the personal pronoun “me” in Esau’s desperate plea towards his father, “Bless me–me also, O my father!” shows his anguish (Genesis 27:34). In Exodus 5:17, the pharaoh addresses the Israelite officers with fury and irritation as he lashes out at them: “You are idle! Idle! Therefore you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’”

Jesus’ prayer on the cross discloses the pain of separation from His Father: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). David’s frantic repetition of the words “my son” and “Absalom” in various combinations–“my son, Absalom” (18:33, 19:4), “my son, my son, Absalom” (18:33), “Absalom, my son, my son” (19:4)– reveals the king’s deep grief as he mourns the death of his son.

The repetition of a word also shows the centrality of a concept or person. In Esther 1:1, the word “king” is used 29 times, indicating the centrality of Ahasuerus to the introductory narrative. In 4:11, the Jewish queen responds to Mordecai’s counsel to plead before Ahasuerus for the Jews’ lives with an articulate response that includes the word “king” five times.

Joshua Berman traces with eloquence Esther’s development from someone whose identity is entirely rooted in the purpose she served–that of pleasing the king–into someone whose identity became more securely rooted in that of a Jew. The repetition of the word “the king” in 4:11 gives us a picture of a queen whose center of attention is her king, a queen who, although wearing royal garb, is “a victim of the ravages to the self-concept suffered through the subjugation of six years of Otherness”[2] from which she emerges only in 9:13 as she refers to her nation by name.

A single-word repetition, or a variant of its root, can also indicate a motif running through a story. For example, in Joseph’s story we can note the garment motif. First, we learn that Jacob made Joseph a colorful garment because he favored him (Genesis 37:3). The second time Joseph’s garment is mentioned, it is being dipped in a goat’s blood by his brothers, to make it appear as if he had been killed by a wild animal (Genesis 37:31-33) Yet a third time, Joseph’s coat is mentioned in the episode with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:11-18). Lastly, Joseph is dressed in fine linen (Genesis 41:42) and made second in Egypt after pharaoh.

Much could be analyzed in Joseph’s story, and much has been written about Joseph. Here I will simply mention that a garment is part of someone’s identity, and throughout his life, Joseph’s identity has been changed several times. From favorite son, to a presumed dead son, to falsely accused slave in a foreign land, to ruler of Egypt, his story winds through several ups and downs, taking the reader through an incredible exposition of how divine providence works alongside and despite human betrayals to bring out the best possible outcome for the people of God.

Phrases

Repeated phrases are also worth paying attention to, for every emphasis or apparent redundancy bears a purpose. For example, in Genesis 37 and 39-41, the phrase “found favor in the sight of” is repeated twice and reflects the positive rapport Joseph built with his Egyptian masters.

The idea of finding favor is also implicitly present in 41:37-43, where Joseph’s advice pleased the pharaoh and his entire court. Thus, both Potiphar and the prison’s overseer (39:3-5, 39:21-23), as well as the pharaoh and his court (41:37-43), came to appreciate Joseph’s work, which bore the mark of God’s blessing. This repetition illustrates the outcome of Joseph’s steady loyalty and good stewardship, even in the direst of circumstances.

In Acts 10:1-11:18, the expression “Simon, who is also called Peter” is repeated four times (10:5, 10:18, 10:32, & 11:13)–the only four times in Acts where Peter is referred to with his birth name. The story recounts the meeting between Peter and Cornelius by which the wall of separation between the Jews and Gentiles is broken, and the Gentiles are accepted into the Christian church as fellow believers.

It is interesting that Peter is referred to as Simon, who is also called Peter. The recollection of Simon’s name change into Peter (Cephas) meaning literally “rock” (John 1:42) evokes the history of his transformation from fisherman to follower of Christ to prominent Christian leader, and is suggestive of the steadfast, rock-solid obedience to God he demonstrates as he makes the first public breach into the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles–truly a monumental turn in the development of the Christian church.

Sentences

At times, we come across entire sentences repeated verbatim. In 1 Samuel 3, the young boy serving at the temple is called by God three times during the night, and in response appears before Eli with the words: “Here I am for you called me.” That a little boy can be so loyal and dedicated that he is willing to wake up three times in the middle of the night, and present himself ready for service, without showing any mark of reluctance or expressing any irritation at timing inconveniences, is entirely endearing and inspiring.

Sometimes sentences are repeated with minor differences, suggesting a progression or further development. In Matthew 26:36–46, Jesus’ repeated prayers in Gethsemane encapsulate His struggle with important nuances. As shown in the table below, His first petition is introduced by the positive sentence “if it is possible,” while the second plea is phrased in the negative “if it is not possible,” and includes the detail “unless I drink it.” This nuanced repetition suggests a progression in Jesus’ acceptance of the plan of salvation that requires Him drinking the cup.

 

Ref. Subject Condition Petition Exception Commitment
vs. 39 My Father, If it is possible May this cup be taken from me   Yet not as I will, but

 as you will.

vs.  42 My Father, If it is not possible For this cup to  be taken away Unless I drink it May your will be done.

 

In the Book of Esther, the king inquired of Esther about her petition three times: when she first appeared before him to invite him to the banquet the day after, while he and Haman attended Esther’s banquet, and months later, after the first day of fighting between the Jews and their enemies. The middle column in the table below shows the repetitions with the differences in nuance.

 

Time Question Ref.
When she first appeared before the king, uncalled “What do you wish, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be granted to you–up to half the kingdom.

 

5:3
At the banquet (following day) “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted to you. And what is your request, up to half the kingdom? It shall be done! 7:2
After the first day of fighting between the Jews and their enemies “Now what is your petition? It shall be granted to you. Or what is your further request? It shall be done.”

 

9:12b

 

Three times king Ahasuerus asked Esther in repeated questions what she desired, and assured her of his approval. The constant expression of goodwill towards Esther indicates the great favor she had gained. It is also interesting to note some progression in the repetitions. The first two times the king addresses Esther, he suggests giving her half of his kingdom. All this occurred before he knew her predicament and plea. The third time he inquires of her wish, he no longer suggests any response on her part. Instead, he simply asks what she “further” desires.

It is also rather intriguing that he only addresses her as “Queen Esther” the first two times. By the time of her third request, Esther no longer needed to be reminded of her royal status, nor be referred to in relation to her husband. She had regained her voice and with it her identity as a Jew–a member of God’s chosen people, whose very purpose with them depended on her speaking up.

Ideas & Actions

Consider again the book of Esther, where one queen lost her royal status because she refused to go before the king when summoned, while another queen gained further privileges as a result of going before the king without being summoned. The narrator could have left out the story of Vashti and picked up from chapter 2.

However, the opening story and the repeated motif of going before the king builds tension and puts Esther’s act into perspective, as later the Jewish queen is faced with choosing between the extinction of her people and the risk of her own death. Her courage and self-sacrificial spirit are all the more evident when we know, not only the severe rules regarding going before the king without being called (revealed in 4:11, 16), but also the king’s previous dealing with disobedience.

Your Turn to Practice:

  • Can you find any repetitions in Genesis 27:12-36?
  • Is there any key word that comes up over and over again?
  • In what way might it contribute to the plot development and spiritual lesson of this passage?
  • Are any of the repetitions present in this story strengthening ideas uncovered through the analysis of other narrative elements?

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 repetition in the passage above.

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

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Notes.

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, New York, NY: 2011), pg. 113-114.

[2] Joshua A. Bermen, Hadassah Bat Bihail: The Evolution from Object to Subject in the Character of Esther, (Journal of Biblical Narrative, Vol. 120, No. 4, Winter 2001), pg. 122.

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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.