Narrative Surprise in Biblical Parallels

in Biblical Interpretation
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Abstract

Surprise is a common narrative technique, but as it is based on the implied reader's 'false impressions', it undermines the reliability of the narrator, which can be a problem in biblical literature. This article attempts to show that the use of surprise in the Bible corresponds to each story's literary and theological goals. I do this by comparing three pairs of parallel narratives: David's bringing the Ark to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13 and 15; Moses' sending messengers to Sihon in Deuteronomy 2 and Numbers 21; and the spies' counsel against conquering the land in Deuteronomy 1 and Numbers 13–14. The first of each pair includes a narrative surprise, while the second conveys the same information without surprise. In the first two pairs—the Ark and Sihon—I find that the use of surprise or lack of it corresponds to the literary and ideological goals of each narrative. In the third pair—the Spies—I find that the supposed surprise in Deuteronomy blatantly contradicts the main theme of the narrative. But by taking into account its Numbers counterpart, and by assuming that the reader of the former has at least partial prior knowledge of the latter (an assumption backed up by a number of previous studies), I find that there is indeed no real surprise in the narrative.

Biblical Interpretation

A Journal of Contemporary Approaches

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