Characterization in Bible Stories

“[In the Bible] the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized. What lies between is nonexistent; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, only suggested by silence and fragmentary speeches.”— Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

The portrayal of character in the spare, unembellished stories of the Bible is often subtle and indirect.  The result is that as readers we need to be very active in inferring what a character is like on the basis of minimal information.

Often, we can say that character is action, and also the reverse—action is character.  What this means is that we are told only what a character did or said, leaving us to determine what this action tells us about the character.  The story of the exchanged birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) will illustrate this:

Once, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.  Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Solely on the basis of Jacob’s actions — and without any commentary from the storyteller — we learn that Jacob is self-seeking, opportunistic, materialistic, and unbrotherly.  We also see that he possesses a canny business sense, as he makes the exchange of the birthright legally binding by having Esau swear an oath.  Esau is also subtly characterized as a person who lives for the moment and has no capacity for spiritual values as represented by the birthright.

In addition to using action to characterize a character, biblical storytellers use the following techniques:

  • Direct description. Sometimes a storyteller will comment on a character in a simple, straightforward way.  When we read that “Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6), we can take it as fact; the storyteller knows.
  • The reactions (or commentary) of other characters in the story. For example, when Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me’” (Genesis 39:7), it confirms the storyteller’s comment that Joseph was handsome.
  • Self-description. Occasionally a character in the Bible describes him or herself, such as when Jacob stands before the king of Egypt and says, “The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred thirty; few and hard have been the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9).

The Bible is packed with characters, and figuring out who’s who can be difficult since storytellers tend to show events without explaining their significance. To learn what traits define a character, you should pay attention to the character’s

  • actions
  • relationships and roles (e.g., husband, mother, ruler)
  • how other characters in the story react to a character
  • self-characterization (which appears very sparingly)
  • direct characterization by the storyteller

You task is to get to know the characters as thoroughly as the details in the story allow.  Also bear in mind that characters tend to fall into archetypal roles, such as the hero, the villain, the trickster, the lover, the underdog, and dozens of others.