In the second in her occasional series on interpretation of biblical narratives (you can find the first one here), CSBV director Helen Paynter discusses breakfast, Bathsheba, and the Bible.
For breakfast today, I had Weightwatchers banana pancakes served with coconut yoghurt, made by my daughter.
There. I’ve told you a history. A story. Not, in this instance fictional, though it could have been, and most of what I’m going to say below will be true irrespective of whether it happened or not.
What I’d like to show you is how we tell stories. And that links to the question of why we tell stories. And that in turn helps to guide us to how we should read stories. Let me show you.
What I’ve done, in giving you that fascinating insight into the domestic arrangements of my family, is make a selection from a range of potential things to tell you; and presented that selection to you. Part of my choice might have been deliberate. Part of it might be unconscious. But hidden within that statement are some clues about what matters to me in the breakfast department.
First, the statement. I had banana pancakes with coconut yoghurt. But why have I told you that? Why did I choose to tell you about my breakfast, rather than my dinner last night, or how I slept or what the weather is like? Well, it might be in answer to a question – spoken or assumed. It might be that I think you will be particularly interested in my breakfast habits. Perhaps I think you should be interested in my breakfast habits. Tuck away that possibility and continue to interpret. (Because that is what you are doing.)
Next, I tell you that it was a Weightwatchers recipe. Why did I tell you that? Maybe I’m sponsored by that particular diet company. If so, there’s a cynical reason for my statement. Or maybe it relates to a mental preoccupation of mine – that I keep my weight down. You probably haven’t got enough information yet to judge between those two possibilities. But you should keep them in mind.
Then I tell you that my daughter made them. Why? Well, probably because I thought it was a lovely thing to happen. Probably because it was a delightful moment for me this morning when she presented me with a delicious plateful of healthy goodness. You can probably learn something about my relationship with my daughter. But some of that will be surmise. Is this a common event? Do I have a marvellous relationship with my daughter, so that she regularly brings me gifts and blesses me in this way? Or do I have a difficult relationship, such that this was a particular surprise? This is a ‘gap’ in my narrative. I haven’t told you, and you are invited to speculate.
But your conclusions will not necessarily be correct. It may be that I want you to play in your mind with the Schroedinger-esque uncertainty. But if you conclude that I have a lousy relationship with my daughter, you will be wrong (I am happy to say). Gaps are there for speculation but not for certainty.
Finally, there are things I haven’t told you about that breakfast. They reflect things that it hasn’t occurred to me that you might be interested in (though I could be wrong).
For example, it didn’t occur to me to mention that the milk for the pancakes was almond milk, and the yogurt was soya yoghurt. This might be because I am so deeply embedded in a vegan mindset that I haven’t thought that you might assume differently. Or it might be that I just happened to have those ingredients in the house, but didn’t even remember that my pancakes were vegan. Again, you can’t be sure – unless there are other clues in things I have told you – perhaps I make a habit of tweeting about my food and you can check out my vegan credentials elsewhere. But it is worth asking the question.
Alternatively, I might be deliberately concealing something by not telling it to you. Perhaps I was still in my pyjamas at midday but thought it best not to mention it.
Now all of this, as I hope you have guessed, is not primarily about my breakfast, fascinating as I am sure it is to you. It is about how we read biblical narrative. Because things that we often do automatically when we read modern narrative – whether fictional or not – we often forget to do when we read the Bible. Let’s remind ourselves of the principles I’ve outlined above.
Our narrators make a selection of what to tell you. That selection is determined by their own interests, or what they think will be of interest to their intended readers. It may be that they are making a particular point about the way that God works. It may be that they are showing you that this story sounds a bit like that story, but something unexpected happens – surprise! – and you should pay particular attention to that thing.
When Elisha tries to raise a boy from the dead, following the example of his master Elijah, he messes it up because he tries to do it his own way. We notice that because the narrator has told it in a way that draws our attention to the links between the two characters, and invites us to compare them.
And our narrators leave gaps. Sometimes those gaps may well be deliberate. (What did Abraham think when God asked him to sacrifice his son?) It is fruitful to speculate within those gaps. But we cannot become dogmatic about what they contain unless there are clues elsewhere. (The writer to the Hebrews fills that gap for us, and you can decide if you think that is a ‘correct’ interpretation of Abraham’s thoughts, or not.) Sometimes the gaps are accidental – the writer just isn’t interested in those questions. And we need to be careful that our speculation about how to fill the gaps doesn’t become canon for us.
So David sees Bathsheba bathing. But we’re not told, for example, that she was naked. She was ceremonially purifying herself after menstruation, so it might have been a discreet wash below her garments. Nor are we told whether she was aware of his gaze or not. It’s fair enough to speculate. But our conclusions are not final.
And then we need to ask why a story is included. What is the purpose of the story of the murder of Jephthah’s daughter? Is it to celebrate the sacrifice of young girls by their fathers? (I think not.) Is it to praise the devotion of a man who kept his vow to God at the expense of his daughter’s life? (Again, no.) Is it to show the degradation of the moral state of Israel in the time before the monarchy? (Yes, and the clue is the repeated refrain, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes.’)
Three things that we should look out for when we read biblical narrative. What have we been told, and why has the narrator told it that way? What are we not told, and how are we invited to speculate? (Are there any clues to help us fill the gaps?) And why is this narrative included, and why at this point in the story?