It’s all about the words

The biblical writers are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.66

The Bible is long, but it spends astoundingly little time describing simple things like appearance, setting, scenery, and other basic details. We are told nothing about Rebekah except that she was “beautiful”. Saul is tall. David is ruddy. We can infer that he had a beard. We virtually never know what sort of clothes anyone wore or what their houses looked like. Compared to the miles of description that show up in modern novels (Clan of the Cave Bear anyone? Holy crud.) this is rather amazing.

The same goes for actions. Wouldn’t a blow-by-blow of the fight with Goliath have been pretty neat? But it’s only a couple of sentences. The Passion of the Christ (movie) drags it out for over an hour but all Mark says is “it was the third hour when they crucified him.”

Even the action we get is often in the form of being “told” by someone else. If something happens away from the main character, we hear about it from a messenger. It does not often cut to action far away. With the bible, there is only one camera unit. It’s all about speech and characters.

Spoken language is the substratum of everthing human and divine that transpires in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to transpose what is preverbal or nonverbal into speech is finally a technique for getting at the essence of things, for obtruding their substratum. In a mode of narration so dominated by speech, visual elements will necessarily be sparsely represented. And even in the exceptional case when a scene is conceived visually, the writer may contrive to report what is seen through what is spoken.


(See example of David talking with the watchmen in 2 Samuel 19)

Language is everything to God it would seem. It’s no wonder why the incarnation (Jesus Christ) is described as the logos, the Word.

With language God creates the world; through language he reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in the ultimate coherence of meaning through language that informs the biblical vision.