An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 4a: Spatial Markers)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 4a: Spatial Markers)

PC: Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

In a narrative, the characters move and speak within the spatial and temporal boundaries of a setting, which make up the background of the story. Any answer to the question “where” is a spatial marker–for example: Jerusalem, in the house, outside, away, here. Spatial settings can be geographical (on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza), topographical (mountains, island), architectural (house, den, palace), socio-economic (in the boat, at the tax booth), religious (synagogue, temple), or political (praetorium).

Whenever the writer includes a spatial marker among the scarce words, it is because that marker is somehow relevant to the story. Therefore, pausing and pondering their significance is not only important, but also rewarding. Like actions, settings reveal something about the characters, advance the plot, or help us connect different aspects of the story to illuminate a spiritual aspect. Let’s explore a couple stories to see how these narrative elements contribute to the understanding of a passage.

Example #1: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

The narrative in Matthew 26:36-46 discloses the struggles of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  The author included several spatial markers which reveal some intriguing patterns. In the table below, I list them in the order in which they appear:

 

Spatial Markers Reference
Gethsemane 36
Here 36
There 36
Here 38
A little further 39
On his face 39
To the disciples 40
Away 42
(To the disciples – absent but implied) 43
Away again 44
To the disciples 45

 

The spatial markers reveal that a lot of movement takes place in Gethsemane from the moment Jesus freely enters the garden until He is ready to exit bound in the hands of sinners.

Two patterns can be noted in this passage filled with broken segments of motion. In the first part of the story, we see a movement of Jesus away from the disciples. The progression here-there – here – a little further-on his face, may suggest an intentional distancing of Jesus from the disciples in His search for a space where he can be alone with the Father. The movement away from the disciples also is suggestive of Jesus’ aloneness, who goes through this episode without the support of His disciples despite requesting it.

In the second part of the story, the movement pattern changes into a back-and-forth motion. From His place of prayer, He goes back to the disciples, then away, back again, away again, and finally back to them. This back-and-forth movement is indicative of wavering, tension, distress, and uncertainty, particularly since it interlocks with the three prayers whose content reveal the same motifs of wavering, tension, and distress: He prays, goes back to the disciples, prays again, goes back to them again, prays the third time, and returns to the disciples.

The spatial markers also reflect the physical, emotional, and spiritual distance between Jesus, the main character, and the secondary characters in the story. Closest to Him is the Father, who is addressed three times and with whom Jesus shares His inmost struggle–a mark of profound intimacy between them. The next proximate characters are the three disciples to whom Jesus discloses that He is in distress–though not the reason for His anguish–and to whom He commands to remain there and keep watch. Farther from him are the other eight disciples who are also in the garden, to whom He only commands that they stay there while He prays.

The betrayer, mentioned at the end of the passage, is the human agent who begins the process leading to Jesus’ death. Emotional distance between the betrayed and betrayer is implicit in the very concept of betrayal. The last group is characterized by Jesus as the “sinners” to whom He is being handed over. The Father, the three disciples, as well as the other eight are all linked in the narrative to the enclosed, protective space of the garden where Jesus prays, while the betrayer and sinners are outside.

Much more could be analyzed in this passage in a way that brings the story to life and adds depth of understanding. In this brief example, I focused on showing how the spatial markers emphasize the emotional struggle of Jesus and suggest the closeness and distance between the main character, Jesus, and all other characters.

Example #2: Philip and the Ethiopian

Acts 8:26-40 abounds in spatial markers. It begins with an angel giving Philip a divine direction that includes two spatial markers. God sends Philip south–a cardinal point, along the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza–a geographical and topographical setting (8:26). The opening is curious enough, but the narrator’s comment that “This is desert” (8:26) raises the expectations.  Why is Philip sent into the desert? What is he to find on the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza?

Spatial Markers Reference
South 26
Along the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza 26
Desert 27
In his chariot 28
With him 31
In the chariot 31
Down the road 36
To some water 36
Into the water 38
Out of the water 39

The author clarifies this shortly: Philip is to find a wealthy Ethiopian official who had traveled to Jerusalem to worship and was in his chariot, reading Isaiah on his way back. Following the prompting of the Holy Spirit,  Philip reaches the chariot and hears the Bible being read aloud.

Probably anticipating the deeper aspect of what he will find on this strange mission, Philip strikes up a conversation with the eunuch that goes directly to the heart of the matter: Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30). The eunuch seizes the opportunity, recognizes his limitations, and invites Philip to sit with him, in the chariot, and guide him. The repeated spatial marker in the chariot now joins the two characters in an evangelistic endeavor where Philip begins exposing the Scriptures from where the eunuch was reading, and shares Jesus.

The narrator continues his account with another marker–this time a double-marker that indicates both time and location: “as they went down the road” (8:36). The two characters journey together for a while, and in their voyage, they come across water –another perfect opportunity that the eunuch again is ready to seize. He voices a desire to be baptized, and confesses belief in Jesus Christ. The chariot stops, Philip and the convert get down in the water, and the eunuch is baptized. As soon as the new believer gets out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away, and he is later found at Azotus.

You may have noticed by now two spatial markers which function as key words in this narrative: desert and water. Given the economy of words in Scripture, we must assume that the author included these for a reason. The words are suggestive of a spiritual reality expressed in the story in a concrete, literal way: In a desert, Philip finds water.

It is well known that the Jews had long believed that Gentiles cannot partake of the promises given to Israel. Yet in this story saturated with divine leading, Philip learns that the heart of a Gentile can be as fertile for the seed of belief as the heart of a Jew. The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch is the first account of a Gentile’s conversion to Christianity, accompanied by the symbol of baptism and of inclusion in the kingdom of God.

This foreigner’s decision to follow Christ has a special significance not only for his personal spiritual journey, but also for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. With his conversion, the Gospel begins to travel South and into Africa, and thus Philip’s missionary endeavor is to bear fruit beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. The movement of the Gospel across borders, as prophesied by Jesus, was beautifully illustrated in this story with the aid of spatial markers, among other narrative features.

Your Turn to Practice:

  • What spatial markers can you find in Genesis 37:12-36?
  • Do you notice any patterns?
  • How do the markers support the main plot of the story?
  • What connections can you make between spatial markers patters and other narrative elements of this episode?

The passage we will be studying is Genesis 37:12-36 (ESV):

(12) Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. (13) And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” (14) So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. (15) And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” (16) “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” (17) And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

(18) They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. (19) They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. (20) Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (21) But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” (22) And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. (23) So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. (24) And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

(25) Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. (26) Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. (28) Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

(29) When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes (30) and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” (31) Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. (32) And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” (33) And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (34) Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. (35) All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (36) Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:12-36, ESV)

Your Turn to Practice: After reviewing the questions, comment below with your analysis of the spatial markers in the passage above.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on Biblical narrative analysis

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.