Understanding the Concept of the Bible as Literature

As an epigraph for my address I have chosen a comment about the Bible that the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky put into the mouth of one of his fictional characters:  “What a book the Bible is, what a miracle, what strength is given with it to [people].  It is like a mould cast of the world and . . . human nature, everything is there. . . .  And what mysteries are solved and revealed.”  “What a book the Bible is:”  indeed.

The main point that I want to emerge from my remarks to you is that the Bible is to a significant degree a work of literature, and that our understanding and enjoyment of it will be enhanced if we are aware of its literary dimension.  Most of what we conclude about the Bible as literature is something that we deduce from the actual text, but there is one writer within the Bible who states flat out what his theory of writing was.  The passage comes near the end of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, and it states in kernel form much of what I want to say about the Bible as literature this morning.  The statement is this:  “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.  The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccl. 12:9-10).

“Arranging with great care.”  Seeking “to find words of delight.”  Here is the biblical writer as self-conscious artist and literary stylist, aware of literary genres, in this case the proverb.

As my way into the topic, I want to ask a series of questions for you to ponder.  A notorious disparager of Christianity of the modern era [H. L. Mencken] called the Bible “unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world.”  Should a person who believes the content of the Bible and who has been saved by faith in its message be more enthused or less enthused than the cultured unbeliever about the literary beauty of the Bible?

An influential literary scholar, not himself a Christian, has written that “Christianity is the most literary religion in the world.”  Are we as Christian readers of the Bible aware of this fact?  Does it make any difference to us?  Do we know what it means?

Does it make any difference that the book that Christians believe to be God’s revelation comes to us largely as a collection of stories, poems, visions, and letters rather than in the form of abstract doctrine or systematic theology?  Why are there so many stories and poems and visions in the Bible?

Is it important that the Bible consistently uses a literary method of discourse, not simply in the narrative and poetic parts, but in the expository and theological parts as well?  Why did Jesus so often use the indirect methods of literary symbolism and parable when teaching theological truth?  Why all those analogies in which the kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seed in a field or like a mustard seed or merchant’s pearl or net full of fish?  Why did Jesus use symbols–light, bread, water–instead of direct statement?

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all scripture is inspired by God.”  Did God inspire the forms of the Bible, or only its content?  Is there any content apart from the forms in which it is embodied?  2 Peter 1:21 assures us that “holy men of God spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  Does this mean that the Holy Spirit moved some biblical authors to write stories, others to write lyric poems, others to write satire, proverbs, history, theological exposition, and so forth?

Was C. S. Lewis correct when he wrote that “there is a … sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are?”  Does a person need to know how to interpret narrative and poetry in order to understand the message of the Bible?

Does the literary approach to the Bible hold any practical promise for people who teach and preach?

I trust that you will agree with me that these questions are not trivial but important.  And I think you will agree that they open up some areas of inquiry that have usually been overlooked or avoided in our circles.

The burden of my remarks to you is to encourage you to believe that a literary approach to the Bible is something that deserves your understanding and participation.  I propose to ask and answer three questions in this address:

  1. What does it mean that the Bible is literature?
  2. What does it mean to approach the Bible as literature?
  3. What are the benefits of approaching the Bible as literature?

What Does It Mean that the Bible Is Literature?

First, what does it mean that the Bible is literature?  Before I answer that question, let me quote a few literary passages from the Bible and encourage you to ponder how this material differs from expository or informational writing of the type we usually encounter in our daily routine.

  • “O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!  For your love is better than wine . . . .  Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.  Your eyes are doves. . . .  I compare you, my love, to a mare of Pharaoh’s chariots”  (Song of Solomon 1).
  • “Now Eglon was a very fat man. . . .  And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber.  And Ehud said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’  And he arose from his seat.  And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly.  And the hilt also went in after the blade, and fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly”  (Judges 3: 17, 20-22).
  • “Then the angel . . . said to me, ‘Lift your eyes, and see what this is that goes forth.’  And I said, ‘What is it?’  He said, ‘This is the measuring container [for cereal] that goes forth.’ . . .  And behold,. … there was a woman sitting in the cereal container!  And he said, ‘[Please meet] Wickedness.’   And he thrust her back into the container.. . .  Then I lifted  my eyes and saw . . . two women . . . [who] had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the container between earth and heaven”  (Zechariah 5).
  • “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.”
  • “Rising early in the morning to bless your neighbor with a loud voice will be counted as cursing” (paraphrase of Proverbs 27:14).

What would you say most obviously characterizes the passages that I read?  I am impressed right off by the range of the material–from the wildly poetic flourish of comparing a woman’s attractiveness to doves and horses, to the realism in the case of the disappearing knife, to the bit of fantasy about a woman named Wickedness sitting inside a cereal container, to the idealized pastoral world of green pastures and still waters, to a wry proverb about the trials of living with an early riser—or of being an early riser and having your cheerfulness spurned.  Let me just note in passing that one of the very great advantages of a literary approach to the Bible is that it dispels the common tendency in our circles to act as though the Bible is all one type of material and to flatten it out in the process.  The Bible is a book–an anthology, actually–notable for its rich variety of material and style, and a literary approach is capable of showing this.

Another thing that leaps out immediately from the quoted passages is that this is pretty entertaining stuff–rather daring, actually.  And along with that it is highly imaginative.  You and I, for example, would not have thought of comparing an attractive woman to a horse, would we, now?  The Bible is an entertaining rather than a dull book, and literary analysis is capable of showing this, too.  There was latent humor in some of the passages that I read, wasn’t there?  Might a literary approach open our eyes to this, and, in fact, give us terms as well as incentive to talk about it?

I recall an occasion when I was teaching the Bible as literature one summer at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a local newspaper sent someone out to interview me.  Early in the interview I spoke about the humor that I had discussed that day in connection with the story of Jacob.  The reporter, who obviously had a low view of Christians, could

hardly get over the fact of humor in the Bible, and she found it hard to cover anything else in the interview.  “Do you mean that your students actually laughed in class?” she asked incredulously.  I have often looked back in regret to a situation in which Christians could have conveyed the impression, or in which an outsider could have gotten the impression, that Christians are humorless people.  But to speak the truth, we have a tendency to regard the Bible as Serious Stuff–capital letters–with all ordinary humanity pressed out of it.

A lot was codified for me when, after I had taught two Sunday school class sessions on the realism of the Bible and the humor of the Bible, a class member shared with me that it was these qualities of the Bible that had been instrumental in his coming to faith, inasmuch as they confirmed for him the validity of the Bible.  Then he looked at me and asked, What kind of book would the Bible be without its realism and humor?

A further aspect of the experiential quality of the passages that I quoted is the concreteness of the language.  Did you notice how the passages kept us rooted in the world of concrete, everyday reality?—a world of horses and swords and measuring containers and pastures and streams and loud voices early in the morning?  Listen to the opening of Psalm 23 again:

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside still waters.

This is obviously artistic in its expression, in the specific verse form of parallelism–stating a similar thought or feeling twice in different words and images but similar grammatical form.  Really, all the passages that I read have their own form of artistry and beauty–an artistry and beauty that elevate them above the ordinary expository use of language with which we conduct our usual business.

The passages that I read obviously rely on special resources of language.  They use poetic imagery–green pastures and still waters–metaphor–“your eyes are doves”–simile–wings like the wings of a stork–personification–a woman named Wickedness—and analogy or comparison—kisses better than wine.  It all sounds like stuff you would read in a literature course.  Indeed, it is like what you read in a literature course.

To sum up, the content of literature is recognizable human experience, not primarily abstract propositions.  A work of literature is not primarily a delivery system for an idea.  Literary content is embodied in distinctly literary genres like poetry and narrative and makes use of special resources of language like metaphor and image.  And literature displays obvious artistry.

When judged by these criteria, how much of the Bible is literary in nature?  I believe that 80 percent is not an exaggeration and that with a generous application of my literary criteria the percentage is higher.  Let me note in passing that the Bible is a hybrid book that combines three chief types of writing or impulses—literary, historical, and theological.  Most passages are a mixture of these, but more often than not the history and theology are embodied in a literary form.

What Does It Mean to Approach the Bible as Literature?

Now the fact that the Bible is literary does not guarantee that people will approach it in keeping with its literary nature.  In fact, most people do not approach it in terms of what it is.  Most biblical scholars would agree with my claims that the Bible is literary in nature, and then they ignore that claim when they actually interact with the Bible.

What, then, does it mean to approach the Bible as literature?  To read and interpret the Bible as literature, we need to do justice to the things that I have said make the Bible literary in nature.  This extends to both its content and its form or technique.

Let’s look at the issue of content first.  The subject of literature is human experience, as distinct from ideas or propositions.  Literature is concrete and experiential.  It does not discourse about virtue, for example, but instead shows a virtuous person acting.  Literature is based on the premise of showing rather than telling, embodiment rather than abstraction.  The knowledge that literature imparts consists of our living through of an experience. The sixth commandment tells us propositionally, “You shall not murder.” The story of Cain and Abel incarnates that same truth, but without using the abstraction “murder” and without commanding us to refrain from it.

The essential mark of literature is to be concrete, experiential, human, vivid, indirect.  Psalm 1 does not tell us, “Life presents us with a choice.”  Instead it presents the choice itself in the form of a prolonged contrast between two characters.  Literature is incarnational:  it embodies meaning and ideas in a concrete form.  Several important corollaries follow from the incarnational nature of literature.

Because the aim of a literary text is to recreate an experience rather than develop a logical argument in essay fashion, the first item on the agenda for the reader and expositor is to relive the text as vividly and concretely as possible.  That is the most important piece of methodology I want to leave with you:  your first task when dealing with a literary text is to relive the text as fully as possible.  A literary text seeks to encompass you in a whole world of the imagination, not to point beyond itself as quickly and transparently as possible to a body of information.  To extend what Kenneth Bailey said about the parables, specifically, a literary text “is not a delivery system for an idea.  It is not like a shell casing that can be discarded once the idea (the shell) is fired.  Rather [it] is a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence.  The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the [text].”  [The Cross and the Prodigal]

The fact that a literary text embodies an experience means that the whole story or the whole poem is the meaning.  There is something irreducible about a literary text.  I am not opposed to deducing propositions from a work of literature, but the propositions that we deduce from a literary text are never an adequate substitute for the meanings that the work itself communicates.

Do you agree with me that there is a huge difference between, on the one hand, a sermon that begins by reliving a biblical story or poem and allowing the themes to arise naturally and inductively from that close reading of the text, and, on other other hand, starting with a list of generalizations and dipping into a biblical story or poem for purposes of illustration, in effect using the text for proof texts to prove the generalizations.  Those two are not even in the same ballpark.  And which of those is the dominant model for sermons in our circles?

Additionally, if theological generalizations are what really matter, why didn’t God give us a Bible that consists of theological generalizations?  But, you protest, the Bible does contain theological generalizations. Yes, it does, but they do not dominate.  Among preachers and theologians and seminarians there is an unwarranted privileging of theological discourse over other forms of discourse, including the literary.   I am still reeling from a minister who said from the pulpit, “An epistle is really a sermon.”  No, an epistle is not a sermon—it is a letter, possessing the generic traits of a letter, not those of a sermon.

The literary impulse to incarnate human experience or reality also has implications for how we view the truth that the Bible communicates.  We usually think of truth in terms of ideas only.  But the truthfulness of literature is another type of truth, namely, truthfulness to experience or reality.

Our ability to see this type of truth or reality in the Bible is rendered easy because of a further trait of literature–the fact that it embodies universal human experience.  Literature never goes out of date.  We can profitably contrast history and literature in this regard.  History tells us what happened, while literature tells us what happens–what is true for all people at all times.  A text can be both and the Bible is both, but when it is literary, it is universal as well as historically specific.  This premise of continuing relevance underlies any good sermon or Bible study, confirming my claim that good Bible expositors practice an incipient literary criticism.  The Bible is more than a work of literature, but it is not less.

My favorite text for convincing my students that literature takes universal human experience as its subject is the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, partly because the apparent remoteness of the primitive and ancient world of the text makes it an unlikely candidate to be as up-to-date as the daily news.  The list of universal, recognizable human experiences in the story of Cain and Abel is nearly inexhaustible.  Let me name some of these experiences:

  • violence, and specifically domestic violence
  • sibling rivalry, including the spectacle of siblings who are temperamental opposites
  • the model child and the problem child
  • the guilty child
  • lying to a parent
  • the domineering older sibling and the put-upon younger sibling
  • lack of self-control
  • envy
  • self-pity
  • harboring a grudge
  • temptation
  • giving in to an evil impulse
  • the futile attempt to conceal a crime
  • anger at having gotten caught
  • the attempt to evade responsibility (“am I my brother’s keeper?”)
  • moral indifference
  • the criminal without regret
  • the judge
  • arrest, trial, and sentencing
  • the appeal of a sentence and modification of it
  • making a bad decision and having to live with the consequences

In claiming that the story of Cain and Abel tells us what happens I am not questioning that it also tells us what happened on the family farm on a fatal day early in human history, nor that this story is laden with moral and theological content.  Yet a touchstone that allows us to gauge whether an expositor has taken a literary approach to a text is the degree to which that person has been sensitive to the universal human experience in it.

Our awareness that the Bible is experiential and concrete in the way I have described should also affect our selectivity of passages to read and teach.  There is no good reason why preachers and Bible study leaders should gravitate so naturally and consistently to the abstract, expository parts of the Bible, chiefly the epistles.  The preponderance of literary writing in the Bible shows that God trusted literature as a medium for conveying truth, and it should serve as a curb against excessive reliance on abstractly theological passages in Bible teaching and preaching.

Of course it is possible to choose literary passages for exposition and yet fail to treat them in a literary manner.  The most common form of this failure is to reduce literary texts to abstract propositions.  Instead of reliving a story, teachers and preachers regularly state a series of generalizations, perhaps dipping into a biblical text for proof texts in support of the ideas that are the main focus.  I have a colleague in the Christian Education Department at Wheaton who made a survey of Bible study and curriculum materials on the Psalms, and he found that overwhelmingly these sources replace the images of the psalms with a series of abstract propositions.

The result is that in our circles we have slipped into thinking of the Bible as a theological outline with proof texts attached.  Several years ago I attended a session on hymnody in which someone with a Ph.D. in musicology surveyed what the Bible tells us about hymns in the church.

The speaker’s outline for the Song of Moses was this:  “A song of deliverance, God’s judgment, God’s works/ways, fulfillment of God’s Word, God’s attributes (greatness, power, justice, truth, holiness, righteousness).”  How could someone with artistic intuitions say nothing about the actual texture of the poem—nothing about those glorious images of the blast of God’s nostrils, the waters piled up, the horse and his rider thrown into the sea?  How could this happen?

It’s not hard to figure that out:  we all handle the Bible in keeping with the models that we have been provided, and the dominant model for dealing with the Bible is to turn it into theological abstractions.  Knowing that literature is a concrete embodiment of human experience can help us interact with the Bible in terms of the kind of writing it really is.  I am increasingly impatient with the disparagement of what is human and earthly in the Bible.

If literature is definable partly by its experiential content, it is also characterized by its form and technique.  The most common way of defining literature is by its genres, or literary types.  Through the centuries, people have agreed that certain genres, such as story, poetry, and drama, are literary in nature.  Other genres, like historical chronicles, theological treatises, and

genealogies, are expository or informational in nature.  Still others fall into one category or the other, depending on how the writer handles them.  Letters, sermons, and orations, for example, can move in the direction of literature if they display the ordinary elements of literature.  The four big literary genres in the Bible are story, poetry, vision, and epistle.  Each of these categories has numerous subtypes.

Did the writers of the Bible write in an awareness of these literary forms.  Yes, they did.

For one thing, as I noted earlier, some biblical writers refer with technical precision to various literary forms, such as “proverb,” “saying,” “oracle,” “complaint,” and such like.  But it is even more evident from their writings themselves that the writers of the Bible were literary craftsmen with a knowledge of literary forms.  The writers of historical narrative knew how to tell stories with well-made plots and vivid characterization.  The poets knew that a psalm of lament had five main parts and that a psalm of praise was expected to have a three-part structure.

The importance of genres in the Bible is that each has its own mode of operation and rules for interpretation.  These should affect how we read and interpret a biblical text.  As readers and interpreters we need to come to a given text with the right expectations.  If we do, we will see more than we would otherwise see, and we will avoid misreadings.  Literary genre should program our encounter with a text.  A literary approach to the Bible will require biblical expositors to enlarge their list of genres and let their knowledge of how each genre works control what they do with biblical passages more thoroughly than they usually do.  But it will not require a sophisticated set of critical tools.  In fact, mastering the tools of literary analysis that are taught in a typical high school or college literature course is the best starting point.

Regardless of the genre in which a given work is written, literature is identifiable by its special resources of language, and attention to them is another mark of an approach that is genuinely literary.  Reliance on literary resources of language can occur in texts that we would not consider to be primarily literary, and wherever they appear, they require literary analysis.  A discourse becomes literary, for example, when a writer exploits such resources of language as metaphor, simile, allusion, pun, paradox, and irony.  These are the very essence of poetry, but in the Bible they appear everywhere, not just in the poetry.  This is why, incidentally, a literary approach is necessary throughout the Bible and not just in the predominantly literary parts.

All that I have said about the nature of literature explains why a literary approach to the Bible is preoccupied with literary form and technique–with how biblical writers express themselves.  In any form of discourse, meaning is communicated through form.  The concept of form should be construed very broadly in this context.  It includes anything that touches upon how a writer has expressed the content of an utterance.

Everything that gets communicated does so through form, beginning with language itself.  While this is true for all forms of writing, it is especially crucial for literature.  Literature has its own forms and techniques, and these tend to be more complex and subtle and indirect than those of ordinary discourse.  Stories, for example, communicate their meaning through character, setting, and action.  To understand a story, we must first interact with the form, that is, the characters, settings, and events.  Poetry conveys its meanings through figurative language and concrete images.  It is therefore impossible to determine what a poem says without first encountering the form, that is, the metaphors, similes, and images.

The literary critic’s preoccupation with the how of biblical writing is not frivolous.  It is, indeed, evidence of an artistic delight in verbal beauty and craftsmanship, but it is also part of an attempt to understand what the Bible says.  In a literary text it is impossible to separate what is said from how it is said, content from form.  In saying that, I do not, however, wish to discredit the aesthetic dimension of a literary approach to the Bible as having value in itself.  The writer of Ecclesiastes, I remind you, “sought to find words of delight.”  A literary approach to the Bible is ready to grant value to the literary skill of the writers and the sheer delight that this skill can provide.

I have talked about what makes the Bible literary and how to tell whether a given handling of a biblical text constitutes a literary approach.  The keynotes are that the content of the Bible is recognizable human experience concretely embodied, and that this content is expressed in distinctly literary forms.

What Advantages Does a Literary Approach Offer?

My remaining question is, What are the advantages that a literary approach offers to us as readers and expositors of the Bible?  First, it provides an improved methodology for interacting with a biblical text.  In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon argued that the church had done a good job of communicating the theological content of the Bible but had failed to make the surface level of the Bible come alive in people’s imaginations.  We are in a similar position today.

You do not need me to tell you that topical preaching dominates in evangelical pulpits and that very few sermons are expositions of a complete passage of the Bible—a passage that is first of all relived as fully as possible. The Bible itself has gone into serious eclipse in evangelical pulpits and church life more generally.  Two decades ago virtually all students entering Wheaton College would have named the inductive Bible study as being central to their Christian experience in high school.  Today virtually no incoming student says that.  The Bible study has been replaced by the charismatic youth leader standing up in front of a large audience discoursing on topics of interest or strumming a guitar.  If we believe that the Bible is uniquely powerful to communicate God’s truth, we should find ways to allow the Bible itself to form the basis for life in the church, including sermons.

A literary approach equips us to interact with Bible passages in terms of the kind of writing they are.  It is because expositors do not know how to come to grips with a biblical passage that they resort so readily to the perennial substitutes–allegorizing, moralizing on specific details of a text, unloading truckloads of background information, and taking an audience on a bicycle trip through parallel passages.  In all these cases, a literary approach provides an ideal antidote.

It also opens the door to including the whole span of the Bible in our repertoire of preaching and teaching and devotional reading.  Someone confided to me that until he mastered a literary approach he would often read psalms to people he visited in the hospital but would avoid using them as the basis for a Bible study because he did not know what to do with them.  If we master how the genres of the Bible work, we can feel comfortable reading or teaching or preaching from any part of the Bible.

We can also pass on our methodology to others.  The church has generally failed to teach people to interpret the Bible for themselves.    Traditional discussions of authorship, historicity, date of writing, and theological content have not yielded a transferable method of interacting with the Bible.  We have basically handed over to the clergy the task of interpreting the Bible.

Biblical scholarship itself has become so complex and specialized that ministers despair of teaching what they learned about biblical interpretation and exegesis in seminary to their parishioners.  Greater emphasis on literary methods of interpretation can be a step in the right direction.  One does not need a seminary education to talk about characters in a story or images in a poem.

By opening the doors to the entire Bible, a literary approach also ensures that we will appeal to the whole range of human temperament in our typical audience, as well as to our own whole selves.  The Bible is more than a book of ideas, and we need to experience and present it as such.  Its truth is partly truthfulness to human experience–to the way things are in our own lives.  Let me also say in passing that to conduct a close reading of a literary text in a Bible study or sermon combines right brain and left brain thinking.  It is a holistic approach to a biblical text.

A literary approach can also add an element of freshness and enjoyment to our reading and study of the Bible.  It can make our contact with the Bible an artistic as well as religious experience.  In our circles, we pay lip service to the beauty of the Bible, but the concept does not mean much to us.  C. S. Lewis said something memorable when he wrote that the man who writes a good love sonnet must be enamored not only of a woman but also of the sonnet.  Artistic considerations were important for the writers of the Bible and should be to us as well.

A final gift of the literary approach is not one what I would have thought to add my list of virtues but that I am prompted to add on the testimony of the dean of the graduate school of an international correspondence school for whom I wrote a hermeneutics course on the literary approach to the Bible.  The dean of the university has taught my course as a two-week module in 30 different countries, and the thing that he most associates with my approach is the ability to see unifying patterns in biblical texts.  An early champion of the literary approach to the Bible wrote axiomatically, “No principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole.”  [Richard G. Moulton, The Modern Reader’s Bible, p. 1718]

Conclusion

To conclude:  if I were to ask you, Is the Bible a literary classic? I think I know what your immediate response would be.  Your and my first response would be to say, No, the Bible is God’s word to us.  If I have done my job adequately, I trust that upon reflection you will agree with me that to speak of the Bible as a literary classic is to identify accurately the form in which God chose to give his word to us.

One of the widely assumed fallacies in our circles is to think that the literary aspects of the Bible are “only” the form in which the content of the Bible is presented.  But the word only is not placed correctly in that statement.  The literary aspects of the Bible are not only the form in which the content comes to us.    They are the only form in which the content comes to us.

There can be no message without the form in which it is embodied.

The foundation on which all biblical interpretation needs to rest is that we cannot extract meaning from a literary text in the Bible without first interacting with aspects of literary form.  Forms like story, poetry, proverb, and vision (to name just a few) are the forms through which biblical content is mediated.  If the writing in the Bible is the product of divine inspiration—if it represents what the Holy Spirit prompted the authors to write as they were carried along (2 Peter 1:21)—then it seems to me that the only possible conclusion is that the literary forms of the Bible have been inspired by God and need to be granted an importance congruent with that inspiration.

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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