Biblical narrative is ambiguous (and why that’s a good thing)
The next time you get frustrated with those biblical authors for making their stories so hard to understand, remember: God did it for a reason.
This might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined. But its stories are ambiguous. Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class — simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, etc. Think of ambiguity as a literary tool.
An Invitation into the Story
Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party. If you are reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral overtly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labelled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do. However, the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The God of the Bible wants to suck you in.
Take Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for instance. The play was written to be performed with no set and minimal props. And why? Because we are meant to imagine not a particular town but rather our town. Without specific details to create distance between the events and our own experience, the narrative unfolding becomes proximate, immediate, real.
Intentional ambiguity also allows for multiple, overlapping interpretations. A good author is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome. Part of the delight of reading is being able to draw your own conclusions and make your own inferences. What fun is a connect-the-dot when all the dots have been connected for you?
The Bible Is Not a 19th Century British Novel
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein. You know the ones I’m talking about: Introspective tomes with a decidedly omniscient narrator. They’re great novels. But the Bible is not one of them. We hardly ever get to hear the inner thoughts of the characters. We hardly ever get a blunt description of a character’s motives.
This might be unsettling at first. We are so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives. In contrast, the Bible can seem impersonal and the characters distant. Additionally frustrating is the fact that we know the biblical Narrator is omnipotent. God himself knows exactly why characters act the way they do. On rare occasion, the Spirit gives us a brief peek into a protagonist’s mind–take note when he does! He knows the minds of his characters. By choice, he keeps them hidden from us most of the time.
Biblical Authors Withhold
Which brings us to our final point. The narrators of the Bible – particularly Old Testament authors – withhold. They don’t tell us everything. They don’t conclude each story with a succinct nugget of truth like one of Aesop’s fables. Often we’re left bewildered as to who the true heroes and villains actually were.
Certainly, there is a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity. Unintentional ambiguity is sloppy writing and poor communication. In contrast, intentional ambiguity is an author’s prerogative. When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better without it. Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers. When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.
The Bible Reads Like Real Life
Does any event in life have just one meaning? Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains? Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with? Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?
Biblical narrative reads like real life. There are multiple correct ways to understand the story. The narratives of the Bible refuse to be boiled down to a “moral of the story.” The line between hero and villain is often blurry. Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game. Ambiguity makes all of this biblical beauty possible.
I believe this is why nearly 75 percent of the Bible is narrative. Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others? Biblical narratives will never be fully exhausted. There is always room for more exploration. There is always a place for another angle. I would argue that narrative is actually more applicable to life than strict directives.
In a society increasingly divided, many want to draw God’s Word into their own interpretive universe. They will fail every time. Intentional ambiguity is a gravitational force that draws us into orbit around God’s Word, never vice-versa.
In some sense, the ambiguity of Biblical narrative shows us who God is–a God who will never be fully comprehended. He is a God who will forever be explored, who has new mercies tucked around every corner, and who has new joys for us every morning. After all, isn’t it the chief end of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever?
The next time you get frustrated with those biblical authors for making their stories so hard to understand, remember: God did it for a reason. Who is a better author than God? Not only is he writing history, but he wrote the most perfectly accurate–and at times beautifully ambiguous–account of that history in his Word.
Editor’s Note: For more intense study and a host of examples, see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. I do not endorse everything Alter espouses, but when it comes to analyzing the Biblical narrative of the OT, he is tops!