Location, Location, Location: The Importance of Settings in Stories

“Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colors the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.  A scene is only justified in the novel where it can be shown, or at least felt, to act upon action or character”— Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations

In the Bible, the question isn’t always, “What’s happening?”  Sometimes the question is, “Where is it happening?”  If you’re like most readers, you are probably so preoccupied with plot and character that you don’t pay much attention to a story’s settings.  One of the quickest ways to enrich your experience of stories is to start paying more attention to the settings.

In the Bible, the location of a story often represents more than just a physical space in which action unfolds.  It can provide symbolic meaning as well. Here are a few examples:

  • In the story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2), the Garden of Eden is not only a physical place but a way of life. It symbolizes the simplicity and innocence of Adam and Eve’s life before the fall.
  • In the book of Ruth, the romance between Ruth and Boaz unfolds in a pastoral or rural setting, a popular locale for love stories throughout the centuries. Why? Because the idealized “green world” mirrors the idealized romance unfolding within it.
  • In the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:17), when Jonah is trapped inside the belly of a huge fish, the setting represents the imprisonment that results from Jonah’s futile attempt to run away from God.

Settings serve as a fit “container” for characters and actions and establish atmosphere as well as embodying symbolic meanings.  Setting enables the action that occurs within it.  A setting contains an action the way a dining room contains a dinner party:  without the specific context and “props” provided by the room, the dinner party would not exist.

Setting is the neglected element in most readers’ experience of stories, and you do not want that to happen to you. A good way to make sure that you get the word scene into your analysis—either scene of                          or a                  scene.  Here is how that works in the story of Cain (Genesis 4:1-6).  Starting at the beginning, we work our way through a birth scene, a domestic family scene, a scene of work, a worship scene, and a scene of rejection.  And that takes us only through the first five verses!  Nothing can happen nowhere.  If you learn to consciously look of the presence of setting in Bible stories, you will find it everywhere.