Commentary Magazine

Biblical Narrative

In a previous article in these pages, “A Literary Approach to the Bible,”1 I wrote about the general paucity of serious literary analysis of the Bible in contemporary scholarship, and about the difficulties that confront the critic in trying to understand and explicate the biblical text in literary terms. What I should like to do here is to extend that discussion by looking closely at one aspect of the literary art of the Bible, the use of repetition in narrative. As before, my effort will be to show how the critical application of literary scholarship can result in a deeper appreciation of the Bible not only as a work of literature, but as a religious document as well.

One of the most imposing barriers that stands between the modern reader and the imaginative subtlety of biblical narrative is the extraordinary prominence of verbatim repetition. This habit of constantly restating material is bound to give us trouble, especially in a narrative that otherwise adheres so evidently to the strictest economy of means. Repetition is, I would guess, the feature of biblical narrative that looks most “primitive” to the casual modern eye, reflecting a mentality alien to our own and a radically different approach to ordering experience from the ones familiar to us.

In the more leisurely, simpler life-rhythms of the ancient Near East, so it would seem, every instruction, every prediction, every reported action had to be repeated word for word in an inexorable literalism as it was obeyed, fulfilled, or reported to another party. Perhaps, some have impressionistically conjectured, there is an “Oriental” sense of the intrinsic pleasingness of repetition in the underlying aesthetic of the Bible, a delight on the part of the writer and his audience in the very mechanism of patient repetition. Thinking in somewhat more concrete historical terms, commentators have attributed the repetitive features of biblical narrative to its oral origins, to the background of folklore from which it draws, and to the composite nature of the text that has been transmitted to us.

The last of these three explanations is the least interesting and finally accounts for the smallest number of cases. There are occasional verses repeated out of scribal error, but under scrutiny most instances of repetition prove to be quite purposeful, and this would include not only the repetition of relatively brief statements but of whole episodes presumably compiled from parallel traditions.

The notion of folklore covers a little more ground, though I think it is rarely the sufficient explanation for the occurrence of repetition that its more programmatic advocates imagine it to be. One of the infrequent cases in which repetition would appear to serve a primarily folkloric function is the presence of two competing etiological tales, both of which seem to have demanded representation in the text as explanations of the same fact. (Thus, to account for a current folk-saying, “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?,” two different stories are reported of his meeting a company of prophets and joining them in manic ecstasy.) More commonly the background of folklore is perceptible not so much in the specific material repeated as in the form the repetition assumes, the structure of the tale. Again and again one finds biblical stories cast in the familiar folktale form of incident, repetition, second repetition with variations or reversal (a form we all know from fairytales like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Rumpelstiltskin”). At times, this pattern is followed with schematic simplicity, and in such cases folkloric practice may well be an adequate explanation of the repetitions. Elsewhere, as we shall have occasion to observe, the one-two-three-change structure of folktale repetition is reshaped with conscious artistry.

Finally, the Bible’s repetitive mode of exposition has been explained by reference to the oral context of biblical narrative. One does not necessarily have to assume, as some scholars have plausibly proposed, that the biblical narratives derive from long-standing oral traditions; for in any case it is altogether likely that they were written chiefly for oral absorption. As several indications in the Bible itself suggest, the narratives would typically have been read out from a scroll to some sort of assembled audience (many of whom would presumably not have been literate) rather than passed around to be read in our sense. The unrolling scroll, then, was in one respect like the unrolling spool of a film projector, for time and the sequence of events presented in it could not ordinarily be halted or altered, and the only convenient way of fixing a particular action or statement for special inspection was by repeating it.

The necessities of oral delivery can be imagined in still simpler terms. If you were a Judean herdsman standing in the outer circle of listeners while the story of the Ten Plagues was being read, you might miss a few phrases when God instructs Moses about turning the Nile into blood (Exodus 7:17-18), but you could easily pick up what you had lost when the instructions were almost immediately repeated verbatim as narrated action (verses 20-21). If you were close enough to the reader to catch every word, you could still enjoy the satisfaction of hearing each individual term of God’s grim prediction, first stated in the prophetic future, then restated as accomplished fact, with an occasional elegant variation of the verbatim repetition through the substitution of a synonym (in verse 18 the Egyptians are unable to drink the water, nil’u lishtot; in verse 21, they cannot drink, lo-yakhlu lishtot). Here, as elsewhere, the solution to what one infers were the physical difficulties of delivering the story orally jibes perfectly with the vision of history that informs the story; for biblical narrative, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Chronicles, is an account of how divine word—and in more ambiguous ways, often human word as well—becomes historical fact. The constantly reiterated pattern, then, of command or prophecy closely followed by its verbatim fulfillment confirms an underlying view of historical causality, translates into a central narrative device the unswerving authority of a monotheistic God manifesting Himself in language.



Up to this point, it may seem as though I have been assuming an absolute distinctiveness in the Bible’s use of repetition. This could hardly be the case, since at least some parts of a whole spectrum of repetitive devices are bound to be present wherever there is pattern in narration, from Homer to Günter Grass. Certain characteristic biblical uses of repetition closely resemble the kinds of repetition that are familiar artistic devices in short stories and novels, dramatic and epic poems, written elsewhere and later. King Lear can serve as an analogue because it is a work that makes spectacularly brilliant use of a wide range of repetitive devices, and these have been conveniently classified by Bruce F. Kawin in Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film.2 The most obvious and general kind of repetition in Lear is situational rather than literal, particularly embodied in the multiple parallels of the double plot. The Bible does not employ symmetrical double plots, but it constantly insists on parallels of situations and reiterations of motif that provide moral and psychological commentary on each other (like the chain of sibling struggles, the displacement of the elder by the younger, in Genesis). Since the use of such parallels and recurrent motifs is ubiquitous in narrative literature, there is no special need here to elucidate its presence in the Bible, though it is an aspect of the biblical tale that always needs careful scrutiny.

At the other end of the spectrum of repetition in Lear is the reiteration of the same word in unbroken sequence (like the mad Lear’s “Kill, kill, kill, kill. . . .” or Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never” over the body of Cordelia)—what Kawin aptly describes as “a syntax of pure emphasis.” This extreme possibility of repetition, where the device has a totally dramatic justification as the expression of a kind of mental stammer, is bound to be relatively rare, especially in non-dramatic literature, but it does occur occasionally in the Bible, most memorably when David is informed of Absalom’s death (2 Samuel 19). The poet-king, who elsewhere responds to the report of deaths with eloquent elegies, here simply sobs, “Absalom, Absalom, my son, my son,” repeating “my son” eight times in two verses.

More pervasively, one discovers in Lear, as in so many plays and novels, a repetition of certain key words (like the verb “crack”) that become thematic ideas through their recurrence at different junctures, carrying, as Kawin puts it, “the meanings they have acquired in earlier contexts with them into their present and future contexts, immensely complicating and interrelating the concerns and actions of the play.” Precisely this kind of word-motif, as a good many commentators have recognized, is one of the most common features of the narrative art of the Bible. It often functions within a single episode as the chief means of thematic exposition within the limited unit. The confrontation, for example, between Samuel and Saul over the king’s failure to destroy all of the Amalekites and their possessions (1 Samuel 15), is woven out of a series of variations on the key terms listen, voice, word. Samuel begins by enjoining Saul to listen to the voice of God; when the king returns victorious from battle, the prophet is dismayed by the voice (or sound, qol) of sheep and the voice of cattle that he hears; thundering denunciation in verse, he tells Saul that what the Lord wants is “Listening to the voice of God,/ For to listen is better than sacrifice,/ To hearken, than the fat of rams”; and a contrite Saul apologizes that he has transgressed the word of the Lord and instead listened to the voice of the people (vox populi being here the thematic opposite of vox dei).

The characteristic biblical strategy, as in this chapter of Samuel, is to call explicit attention to the verbal repetition, but there are also numerous instances in which repetition becomes a Jamesian figure in the carpet, half-hidden, subliminally insistent, in the manner most congenial to modern literary sensibilities. Samson, for example, is quietly but effectively associated with a verbal and imagistic motif of fire (Judges 14-16). The various cords that fail to bind him are likened to flax dissolving in fire when he snaps them with his strength. The thirty Philistine men threaten his first wife with death by fire if she does not obtain for them the answer to Samson’s riddle. When Samson is discarded as a husband by the action of his first father-in-law, he responds by tying torches to the tails of foxes and setting the Philistine fields on fire. The immediate reaction of the Philistines is to make a roaring bonfire out of the household of Samson’s recent wife, with her and her father in the midst of the flames. By the time we get to the captive Samson bringing down the temple of Dagon on himself and several thousand of his enemies, though there is no actual fire in this climactic scene, fire has become a metonymic image of Samson himself: a figure of blind, uncontrollable force, leaving a terrible swath of destruction behind it, finally consuming itself together with whatever stands in its way.

Word-motifs are most characteristically used, however, in larger narrative units, to sustain a thematic development and to establish instructive connections between seemingly disparate episodes. Michael Fishbane, in a recent article, has convincingly argued that the entire cycle of tales about Jacob is structured through the reiteration of word-motifs and themes as a series of “symmetrical framings” which “reflect a considered technique of composition.”3 The two most decisive words for the organization of this material in Genesis are blessing and birthright (in Hebrew a pun, berak-hah and bekhorah). These key words, supported by a whole set of subsidiary word-motifs, mark the connections between thematically parallel narrative units, creating “a formal structure of inclusions and order which stand in ironic contrast to the machinations of the content.”

This sort of literary mechanism, at once a unifying device and a focus of development in the narrative, should be understandable enough to anyone familiar with, say, Shakespeare’s elaboration of the multiple implications of the word time in Henry IV, Part 1, or with Fielding’s multifariously ironic treatment of prudence in Tom Jones, or, in a more musically formal deployment, Joyce’s conjuring with yes in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. The uses of repetition, then, which we have been reviewing are shared by the Bible with other kinds of narrative literature. What most distinguishes repetition in biblical narrative is the explicitness and formality with which it is generally employed, qualities that, to return to our initial difficulty, support an unusual proportion of verbatim restatement. In order to appreciate the artfulness of this kind of repetition, a modern reader has to cultivate the complementary opposite of the habits of perception he most frequently puts to use in his reading. That is, in narratives where there is a great density of specified fictional data and some commitment to making the mimetic elements of style and structure more prominent than the poetic ones, repetition tends to be at least partly camouflaged, and we are expected to detect it, to pick it out as a subtle thread of recurrence in a variegated pattern, a flash of suggestive likeness in seeming differences. (The obvious exception to this tendency in Western literature would be extreme fictional experiments in stylization, like those of Gertrude Stein or Alain Robbe-Grillet, where repetition becomes an obtrusive structural device.) When, on the other hand, you are confronted with an extremely spare narrative, marked by formal symmetries, which exhibits a high degree of literal repetition, what you have to look for more frequently is the small but revealing differences in the seeming similarities, the nodes of emergent new meanings in the pattern of regular expectations created by explicit repetition.



How this actually works will become clear, I hope, through some examples. Broadly, when repetitions with significant variations occur in biblical narrative, the changes introduced can point to an intensification, climactic development, acceleration of the actions and attitudes initially represented, or, on the other hand, to some unexpected, perhaps unsettling, new revelation of character or plot.

The former category is the simpler of the two, related as it is to the device of incremental repetition we might expect in an ancient narrative. Thus, in 1 Kings 1, after Adonijah has laid claim to the throne, Nathan the prophet gives the following advice to Bathsheba: “Go to King David and say to him—My lord king, did you not swear to your handmaid in these words: ‘Solomon your son will reign after me and he will sit on my throne?’ Then why has Adonijah become king?” Nathan goes on to assure Bathsheba that he will make his entrance while she is still speaking to David and will fill in—that is literally the verb he uses—whatever she has left unsaid. Now, one of the intriguing aspects of this whole story—for the omissions of biblical narrative are as cunning as its repetitions—is that we have no way of knowing whether David in fact made such a pledge in favor of Solomon or whether it is a “pious” fraud that Nathan and Bathsheba are foisting on the old and failing king, who hardly seems to know at this point what is happening around him.

Bathsheba carries out her instructions, addressing these words to David:

My lord, you swore by the Lord your God to your handmaid, ‘Solomon your son will reign after me and he will sit on my throne.’ But now Adonijah has become king, without, my lord king, your knowing. He has slaughtered an abundance of oxen, fatlings, and sheep, inviting all the sons of the king and Abiathar the priest and Joab the general of the army, but Solomon your servant he did not invite. You, my lord king, the eyes of all Israel are upon you to tell them who will sit on the throne of my lord king after him. For when my lord king lies with his forefathers, I and my son Solomon will be held guilty.

It is a brilliant speech, Bathsheba repeating the lines Nathan has given her but also expanding them with the most persuasive inventiveness. The two-word indication, malakh Adoniyahu, Adonijah has become king, blossoms out into her review of the usurper’s invitation-list for his feast, her description of all Israel waiting breathlessly for the king’s pronouncement, and her pathetic evocation of the fate that will soon attend her and her son if David fails to act. Even in what she repeats verbatim from Nathan’s instructions, she introduces one small but revealing addition: she claims that David swore to her about Solomon’s succession “by the Lord [his] God,” which would indicate a higher order of binding solemnity to the vow. Perhaps Nathan as a man of God was nervous about taking His name in vain (especially, of course, if the whole idea of the pledge was a hoax) and so omitted that phrase from his instructions. David, carrying this particular incremental repetition a half-step further, will announce to Bathsheba after he has been persuaded by her and Nathan that he did make such a vow, “As I swore to you by the Lord God of Israel, ‘Solomon your son will reign after me . . . ,’” giving the solemn vow the concluding flourish of an official proclamation.

Nathan, faithful to the scenario he has sketched out, enters just at the point when Bathsheba has conjured up her prospective plight after David’s demise. Shrewdly, since he would not be presumed to know of a pledge given by David directly to Bathsheba, he takes the precise verbal formulas of the supposed vow (which he has in fact just dictated to Bathsheba) and turns them into a barbed question about Adonijah: “My lord king, did you say, ‘Adonijah will reign after me and he will sit on my throne’?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he plunges into an account of the usurper’s politically designing feast in which, following the pattern of incremental repetition, some pointed details appear that were not present in Bathsheba’s version:

For today he went down to slaughter an abundance of oxen, fatlings, and sheep, inviting all the sons of the king and the generals of the army and Abiathar the priest, and there they are eating and drinking in his presence, and they have proclaimed, ‘Long live King Adonijah.’ But me, your servant, and Zadok the priest and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and Solomon, your servant, he did not invite.

The differences between Nathan’s version and Bathsheba’s version are wonderfully in character for both. Bathsheba’s presentation reveals the distressed mother and suppliant wife emphasizing the injustice done to her son, the imminent danger threatening mother and son, the absolute dependence of the nation on the powerful word of the king. Nathan, by what he adds, sharpens the more general political aspects of the threat from Adonijah. In his repetition of the shared script, it is not just Joab but the whole military elite that has been suborned by the pretender, and he has a fuller list of David’s faithful who have been set aside by Adonijah, beginning emphatically with “me, your servant” (Bathsheba prudently left Nathan out of her account), a symmetrical counterpart to “Solomon, your servant” at the end of the series. Most crucially, Nathan adds a little vignette of Adonijah’s company eating and drinking and shouting “Long live King Adonijah,” a scene certainly calculated to rouse the ire of the still reigning king. In tactful contrast to the usurper’s followers, Bathsheba at the end of this meeting will say to the aged monarch, “May my lord King David live forever.”

The effect of this whole process of repeating and adding is to overwhelm David with a crescendo of arguments. Incremental repetition, which in its more schematic usages simply provides a progressive intensification or elaboration of an initial statement, here has the fullest dramatic and psychological justification. It conveys, without the need for explicit commentary, aspects of the distinctive character of each of the personages involved in the scene, and it becomes as well a convincingly effective means of bringing about a change in the course of events—for here as elsewhere in the Bible, language manifestly makes things happen.4



Variation in repetition is sometimes used to adumbrate not a feature of character but a development of plot. The effect this produces is thoroughly characteristic of the Bible’s narrative art. In the kind of foreshadowing we are more accustomed to, an eventual denouement is anticipated by some momentary insistence of action, image, or narrator’s assertion. Julien Sorel near the beginning of The Red and the Black enters a church where he finds a scrap of printed paper reporting the execution of one Louis Jenrel, the anagram of his own name, and as he leaves, the sunlight coming through the red curtains makes the holy water look like blood—a tremolo note typical of the convention of foreshadowing but, fortunately, not of Stendhal’s novels. In the Bible, on the other hand, terse understatement remains the norm, and future turns of events are adumbrated by the slight disturbing dissonance produced when in a pattern of repetition some ambiguous phrase is substituted for a more reassuring one. What is conveyed to the reader is a subliminal intimation of things to come rather than some emphatic though obscure warning.

When, for example, Manoa’s wife (Judges 13) is told by the angel that she will conceive and bear a son, she repeats almost all the terms of the divine promise word for word to her husband, but she significantly changes the final phrase of the annunciation. The angel had said, “The lad will be a Nazarene to God from the womb, and he will begin to save Israel from the Philistines.” In her repetition, the future mother of Samson concludes, “The lad will be a Nazarene to God from the womb to the day of his death.” It is surely a little unsettling that the promise which ended with the liberation—though, pointedly, only the beginning of liberation—of Israel from its Philistine oppressors now concludes with no mention of “salvation” but instead with the word “death.” From the womb to the day of death is, of course, a proverbial and neutral way of saying “all his life.” In context, however, the woman’s silence on the explicit promise of political salvation and the counterpoising of the three-word phrase, ad-yom moto, to the day of his death, against the echo of the whole clause on the lad’s career as a liberator, turn the substituted phrase into an implicit commentary on the prophecy and restore to that final “death” a hint of its independent negative force. The absence of salvation in the wife’s version would seem to be underscored when Manoa subsequently questions the angel about “what will be the regimen for the lad and his deeds.” The angel, after all, has already given the answer to both parts of the question in his words to Manoa’s wife, but the crucial information about the child’s future deeds was deleted from her report to Manoa. In sum, the dissonance of a single phrase subtly sets the scene for a powerful but spiritually dubious savior of Israel who will end up sowing as much destruction as salvation.

Let me offer one more example of varied repetition as a foreshadowing device because, occurring at a moment of much greater narrative suspense, it illustrates how the folktale pattern of a whole series of exact repetitions concluded by a reversal can be employed with considerable artistic sophistication. In 2 Samuel 3, Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, decides to end the long civil war with the house of David and comes to David’s capital at Hebron to confer with the warrior-king. After a feast and an amicable discussion in which Abner pledges to win over all his people to the signing of a treaty and the recognition of David as king,

David sent Abner off and he went in peace [vayelekh beshalom]. And here were David’s retainers and Joab coming back from a sortie bringing much booty with them, and Abner was not with David in Hebron, for he had sent him off and he went in peace. As Joab and the troops with him returned, Joab was told the following: “Abner came to the king, and he sent him off and he went in peace.” Joab came to the king and said: “What have you done? Here, Abner came to you, why did you send him off and he went indeed [vayelekh halokh]?”

After three occurrences in rapid succession of a departure in. peace, Joab’s substitution of an intensifying infinitive, halokh, for beshalom, in peace, falls like the clatter of a dagger after the ringing of bells. Joab says “he went indeed” partly because he is seething with anger at the thought that David actually let Abner go off when he had him in his hands, partly because his own steely intention is to make sure that this going off will not be in peace. Joab quickly proceeds to berate David for giving aid and comfort to the enemy who could have come only to spy, then he rushes off messengers to call Abner back to Hebron; and, when he returns, this toughest of ancient Near Eastern mafiosi, drawing Abner over to the city gate, stabs him to death, thus avenging his brother Asael killed in battle by Abner. By the time we arrive at the rapid denouement of the episode, we may even wonder retrospectively whether the breaking of the series of repetitions with the infinitive of the verb “to go” was not merely to intensify the meaning of the verb but to call attention to its possible application by Abner in another sense—as a euphemism for death. (For some indication that this secondary meaning was current in biblical usage, see Job 27:21 and Jeremiah 22:10.) In any case, it should be clear that in order to grasp the full freight of the character’s intention and the subtlety of narrative structure in such a story, one must be alert even to the shift of a single word in what may first seem a strictly formulaic pattern.



Having surveyed some varieties of artful repetition, I would like to offer a more elaborate illustration in which a carefully orchestrated ensemble of repetitive devices provides the complex structure for an entire story. My example, the story of Balaam, the Gentile prophet (Numbers 22:2 to 24:25), is unfortunately too long to comment on here verse by verse, but I shall try to show how it works through a summary analysis.

The very first word in the Hebrew of the Balaam story is the verb to see (22:2), which appropriately becomes, with some synonyms, the main word-motif in this tale about the nature of prophecy or vision. First Balak, king of Moab, sees what Israel has done to the Amorites; later Balaam, in a climactic series of visions, will see Israel sprawling out below him in a vast spatial perspective (e.g., 23:9: “I see them from the cliff-tops,/ Espy them from the heights”) which, in the last of his prophecies, becomes a temporal perspective of foreseeing (24:17: “I see it but it is not yet,/ I behold it but it won’t be soon”). Balaam prefaces his last two prophecies with a formulaic affirmation of his prowess as a professional clairvoyant or ecstatic seer: “Word of Balaam son of Beor,/ Word of the man with open eyes./ Word of him who hears God’s speech,/ Who beholds divine visions,/ Prostrate with eyes unveiled.” All this accomplished hullabaloo of visionary practice stands in ironic contrast, of course, to the spectacle of Balaam persistently blind to the presence of an angel his ass can plainly see, until God chooses to “unveil his eyes” (22:31).

This steady insistence on God as the exclusive source of vision is complemented by reiterated phrase-motifs bearing on the disposition of blessings and curses. Balak sends for Balaam to put a hex on Israel because he believes, in his pagan naiveté, as he says to Balaam, that “What you bless is blessed/ And what you curse is cursed” (22:6). God Himself is quick to set matters straight in a night-vision to Balaam in which He uses the same two verb-stems (22:12): “You shall not curse the people because it is blessed.” A whole series of changes is rung on the curse-blessing opposition, both in Balaam’s visionary verse and in the exasperated dialogues between him and Balak. The appropriate thematic conclusion is explicitly made by Balaam in the preamble to his first prophecy (23:7-8): “From Aram Balak has brought me,/ Moab’s king from the eastern mountains:/ Come curse me Jacob,/ Come, pronounce Israel’s doom./ How can I curse what God has not cursed,/ How can I doom what the Lord has not doomed?” These verses interestingly illustrate how the prosodic repetitions of poetic parallelism can be effectively interwoven with the thematic repetition of phrases in the prose. It is important that Balaam is a poet as well as a seeer, for the story is ultimately concerned with whether language confirms or confers blessings and curses, and with the source of the power of language.

It is particularly the structure of parallel actions in the Balaam story that demonstrates how, in contrast to the complaints of Voltaire and others, the Bible’s polemic monotheism can produce high comedy. Balaam goes riding off on his ass to answer Balak’s invitation. In the familiar folktale pattern, there are three occurrences of the same incident, the ass shying away from the sword-brandishing angel Balaam cannot see, each time with a more discomfiting effect on her rider: first he is carried into a field, then he is squeezed against a fence, and finally the ass simply lies down under him. When he begins to beat her furiously for the third time, the Lord “opens up her mouth” (elsewhere Balaam repeatedly insists that he can only speak “what the Lord puts in my mouth”), and she complains (22:28), “What have I done to you that you should beat me these three times?” The author, one notes, makes a point of calling our attention to the three times, for the number will be important in the second half of the story. Balaam in his wrath hardly seems to notice the miraculous gift of speech but responds as though he were accustomed to having daily domestic wrangles with his asses: “You have humiliated me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you.” (The Midrash BeMidbar Rabbah, 20:12, notes the irony of Balaam’s wanting a sword to kill an ass when he has set out to destroy a whole nation with his words alone.) Only when God chooses finally to reveal to Balaam the armed angel standing in the way does he repent for ill-treating the innocent creature.



It seems fairly clear that the ass in this episode plays the role of Balaam—beholding divine visions with eyes unveiled—to Balaam’s Balak. The parallel between the two halves of the story is emphasized by the fact that in Balaam’s prophecies there are again three symmetrically arranged occurrences of the same incident, each time with greater discomfiture to Balak. In Balaam’s prophetic imagery, first Israel is spread out like dust, then crouched like a lion, and finally rises like a star, so that the Moabite king, waiting for a first-class imprecation, is progressively reduced to impotent fury, quite in the manner of Balaam’s blind rage against the wayward ass.

Now, a sequence of repeated actions in such a folktale pattern is of course a mechanical thing, and part of the genius of the biblical author here is to realize, three millennia before Bergson’s formulation of the principle, that the mechanical in human affairs is a primary source of comedy. Balak’s and Balaam’s repetitions are much more elaborate than those of Balaam with the ass: each of the three times, Balaam instructs Balak to build seven altars and to sacrifice on them seven oxen and seven sheep, as the distraught king trundles him around from one lofty lookout point to the next; each time, the painstaking preparations result only in heightened frustration for Balak. Paganism, with its notion that divine powers can be manipulated by a caste of professionals through a set of carefully prescribed procedures, is trapped in the reflexes of a mechanistic world-view while reality is in fact controlled by the autonomous will of an omnipotent God. The contrast between these two conflicting conceptions of reality is brilliantly brought forth in the story’s artful pattern of repetitions. In each repeated instance, the Moabite king and his hired prophet go through identical preparations, and each time Balaam speaks in soaring verse—the words God has put in his mouth—which constitutes a crescendo repetition of powerful vision in counterpoint to the mechanical repetition of their futile human actions. The harmony of theological argument and narrative art in the whole story is beautifully complete.



As the Balaam episode shows with particular force, artful repetition reflects an underlying assumption of biblical narrative. Language in the biblical stories is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events, or as an aesthetic embellishment of them, but as an integral and dynamic component—an insistent dimension—of what is being narrated. With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in an ultimate coherence of meaning through language which informs the biblical vision. When the action and speech of men and women, always seen in some fateful course of convergence with or divergence from divine instruction, is reported to us in biblical narrative, repetition continually sets their lives into an intricate patterning of words. Again and again, we become aware of the power of words to make things happen. God or one of His intermediaries speaks: man may repeat and fulfill the words of revelation, repeat and delete, repeat and transform; but always there is the original urgent message to contend with, a message which in the potency of its concrete verbal formulation does not allow itself to be forgotten or ignored. On the human plane, a master speaks (for spiritual and social hierarchy is implicit in this patterning), his servant is called upon to repeat through enactment; and, most frequent of all, an action is reported by the narrator, then its protagonist recounts the action in virtually the same terms, the discrepancy between “virtually” and “exactly” providing the finely calibrated measure of his problematic subjective viewpoint. As human actors reshape recurrence in language along the biases of their own intentions or misconceptions, we see how language can be an instrument of masking or deception as well as of revelation; yet even in such deflected form we witness language repeatedly evincing the power to translate itself into history, a history whose very substance seems sometimes men and their actions, sometimes the language they use.

Beyond this constant interplay through repetition between speech and narration, biblical personages and events are caught in a finer web of reiteration in the design of thematic words and phrases constantly recurring. No act or gesture is incidental and the sequence of events is never fortuitous. The human figures in the large biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality, but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design. As we read the various biblical stories, we are often caught up, as we are in other kinds of narrative, with the strong individual traits of the personages and the seeming waywardness of what befalls them or what they do—Joseph in naked flight from Potiphar’s wife, Jacob deceiving his wily father-in-law—but the steady pattern of repeated key words in which such actions are set persists as the rhythmic assertion of a grander destiny. Finally, it is the inescapable tension between human freedom and divine historical plan that is brought forth so luminously through the pervasive repetitions of the Bible’s narrative art.


1 December 1975.

2 Cornell University Press, 197 pp., $7.50.

3 “Composition and Structure in the Jacob Cycle,” Journal of Jewish Studies, XXVII, 1-2, Spring-Autumn 1975.

4 It is characteristic of conventional Bible scholarship that an excellent historical-philological commentary on Kings, that of John Gray (Westminster Press, 1963), should note the frequent repetitions here, cite as a parallel the Ras Shamra myths, and then say nothing more than, “Such repetition is of course a feature of popular narrative and is found in ballad literature.”

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.