Biblical Narrative Is Ambiguous (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

This might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined. But its stories are ambiguous. Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class–simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, etc.  Think of ambiguity as a literary tool.

An Invitation into the Story.

Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party.  If you are reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral clearly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labelled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do.  However, the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers.  The Bible wants to suck you in.  The Bible wants you to jump head first into its rich, deep, salty depths.

Ambiguity is a literary tool authors use to force–or rather allow–the reader to do some of the work.  An author who makes good intentional use of ambiguity delights in the multiple ways you could interpret his story.  He is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome.  He would rather present his story in a way that allows you to draw some of your own conclusions, make your own inferences.  As the author, he delights when you connect the right dots, and he is even more delighted when you connect dots he himself did not recognize.

The Bible Is Not a 19th Century British Novel.

You know the ones I’m talking about: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility.  Even today, we expect a level of introspection in modern fiction, and we appreciate a window into the intimate thoughts of the characters.  The Biblical authors just did not write this way.  We hardly ever get to hear the inner thoughts of the characters.  We hardly ever are told bluntly a character’s motives.

This might be unsettling at first.  When we are so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives, the Bible seems impersonal, and the characters seem distant.  The frustrating thing is that we know the Biblical narrator is omnipotent. When he gives us that rare peek into a protagonist’s mind, he demonstrates that he does know the motives, desires, and thoughts of his characters.  He’s just unwilling to share them!

Biblical Authors Withhold.

The narrators of the Old Testament are not overbearing and introspective, telling you every inner motive and thought of the main characters.  They withhold.  They don’t tell us everything.  They don’t conclude each story with a succinct nugget of truth.  Often it’s difficult to even determine who the true hero and villains were.  They know more than they tell us about the inner workings of their characters, but they choose to be ambiguous.  Not every situation has a true, flawless shining hero and a wicked and vile archenemy.

Now, all ambiguity is not created equal.  There is a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity.  Unintentional ambiguity is just sloppy writing and poor communication.  However, intentional ambiguity is an author’s prerogative.  He does it on purpose. When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better without it.  Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers.  When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.

The Bible Reads Like Real Life.

imagination_and_biblical_narrative_515455426Does any event in life have just one meaning?  Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains?  Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with?  Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?

Biblical narrative reads like real life. There are multiple correct ways to understand the story.  The narratives of the Bible refuse to be boiled down to a “moral of the story” or a nugget of truth.  The line between hero and villain is often blurry.  Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game.  Ambiguity makes all of this Biblical beauty possible.

I believe this is why nearly 75% of the Bible is narrative.  We often think that Paul’s exhortations in his epistles are the most applicable portions of Scripture.  They are clear, concise, to the point.  However, what is more similar to life than the ambiguous narratives that fill God’s Word?  Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s Sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others?  Biblical narratives will never be fully exhausted.  There is always room for more exploration.  There is always a place for another angle.  I would argue that narrative is actually more applicable to life than strict directives.

In some sense, the ambiguity of Biblical narrative shows us who God is–a God who will never be fully comprehended.  He is a God who will forever be explored, who has new mercies tucked around every corner, and who has new joys for us every morning.  After all, isn’t it the chief end of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever?

The next time you get frustrated with those Biblical authors for making their stories so hard to understand, remember: God did it for a reason.  Whose a better author than God?  Not only is he writing history, but he wrote the most perfectly accurate–and at times beautifully ambiguous–account of that history in His Word.

For more intense study and a host of examples, see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.  I do not endorse everything Alter espouses, but when it comes to analyzing the Biblical narrative of the OT, he is tops!

(photo credit)