The Density of Scriptural Style | Genesis 37:1
Let me read to you two different styles of storytelling. First, Thomas Hardy from his book Under the Greenwood Tree:
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.
And this is one of the first sentences from the Joseph story, ”Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers.”
Notice the difference? The biblical narrators are sparse, not florid, unadorned, but dense, dense with meaning and symbolism, dense with details that will be apropos to the story.
Much of modern literature invests a lot of time in describing scenes and physical characteristics of characters. The biblical narrator, by contrast, very rarely includes those details, and when he does include details, it will always have a plot function, it will be important in the story.
Let me explain the beauty of this dense style with the text we just read from the Joseph story. In one sentence the author crams four pieces of plot significant information.
First, we’re introduced to the main character, Joseph.
Second, we’re told his age and thus maturity, “seventeen.” And there is a subtle irony here, Joseph bears a symbolically perfect age, 7+10, but he is not perfect. This will mirror the fact that he has a favored relationship with his father but does not know how to handle that privilege. Later in the story after God has matured Joseph, the narrator will mark his age again, 13 years later, 13 years of discipleship, through slavery and prison.
Third, we’re told his vocation, “pasturing the flock.” This, of course, is his training for his final vocation, pasturing people as second in command in Egypt. But here, he is unable to pasturing well with his brothers. By the end of the story he will have been trained to pasture with them and others well. He will rise not to first in command in Egypt but to second, and he can do that skillfully. He will also learn to care for his brothers and not bring bad reports about them and gloat in his blessings, but using his blessings to feed the world
And fourth, in that first sentence we are introduced the conflict in both form and content. We are introduced to the antagonists: the brothers. And our author ingeniously implies their conflict by semantically separating them as far as possible in the sentence. Listen to the sentence again, “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers.” Joseph is the first word and “the brothers” are the last words. They are separate semantically because they are separate relationally and they will be separated physically for a good portion of the story.
So while the biblical narrator does not have as much detail as much modern literature, the details that he does include are deep, and need to be decanted. They will often hint or ironize the futures of the characters and plot. The biblical reader must be attentive to the care constructions of the author, because he is subtle and artful.