An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 6a: Intercalations)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 6a: Intercalations)


The term “intercalation” refers both to the writing technique by which an author inserts a story within another story, and the bracketed story itself. “Intercalation” is used interchangeably with “sandwich,” “interpolation,” and “interposition,” though scholars argue in favor of one or another for a more nuanced definition. An intercalation interrupts the flow of a narrative, which usually resumes after the interjection.

Many biblical intercalations are anachronistic (chronologically out of order). For this reason, some scholars have regarded intercalations as proof of poor and clumsy editing performed on the original text by later editors. Recent narrative analysts, however, show that instead of proving inept and later editing, intercalations demonstrate the artistry of the biblical writers who purposefully arranged the text in this manner in order to reinforce a theological point.

The technique of intercalation is sometimes used in present-day oral discourse–for example in sermons. A preacher may begin to tell a biblical story, interrupt its flow with a personal story, and eventually resume the biblical story. The purpose of the intercalation is to more forcefully bring home a key point. Likewise, in movies (the audio-visual rendition of stories), the cameras may shift the focus from one story to another (for example when following the alternative development of several characters) in order to build a theme.

Similar purposes feature in biblical sandwich stories. Thus, given that stories can be linked together, not only chronologically, but also thematically, anachronistic intercalations in no way diminish the author’s artistry or the originality of his writing. The type of intercalation reflects the author’s purpose.

Whether chronological or anachronistic, all intercalations share common motifs with the frame-narrative. These motifs help us identify the relation between the stories and key theological points. Therefore, in order to discover the theological significance of such a passage, we need to study each story in part and then observe them together. To illustrate the artistic quality and theological significance of intercalated stories, I will summarize some key points in four sandwich stories.

Example 1: Genesis 38

In The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter examines the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38[1], which interrupts the long narration of Joseph’s story extending from chapter 37 to 50. Judah, the brother who suggested selling Joseph into slavery for profit, now takes center stage in a narrative that portrays him as unjust towards his daughter-in-law Tamar.  After the death of his firstborn Er (punished by God because of his wickedness) and his brother Onan (also punished by God because he refused to raise up an heir to his brother), Judah disregards the levirate law by refusing to give Tamar to his grown youngest son, fearing he would die too. Tamar takes justice into her own hands and plays the harlot with the widowed Judah, as a result of which she becomes pregnant with twins. When confronted with the death penalty for harlotry by her accusing father-in-law, Tamar unmasks him as the twins’ father by asking him to recognize the pledge she extracted from him as a fake harlot. This recognition elicits his confession and likely the beginning of his moral conversion.

Alter noted that both the frame story (Joseph’s life) and the intercalated narrative (Judah and Tamar) exhibit the interconnected motifs of “recognition”[2]—the “deceiver deceived.”[3] We can also observe that the theme of “life” is common to both narratives. These can be best seen in a side-by-side study of the stories.

Keyword Frame

Joseph is sold as a slave


Judah and Tamar


Josephs and his brothers in Egypt

Deception Garment


Judah and his brothers deceived Jacob with a bloody coat. Tamar deceives Judah with harlot garments.


The deceiver Judah becomes the deceived Judah.
Kid A kid was killed for the affair. A kid was demanded for the affair
Recognition Recognize


Tamar can deceive Judah because he fails to recognize Tamar in harlot garments. Joseph can deceive his brothers because they fail to recognize him in garments of fine linen. The deceivers become the deceived because of their inability to recognize.

& Injustice

Tamar reveals her identity as Judah recognizes his pledge and his injustice. Joseph reveals his identity and the brothers recognize him and their injustice. Their deception elicits or proves their moral conversion.


Life Judah has two sons, who become ancestors of the Messiah. Joseph preserves the life of Jacob’s household. The Messianic ­­­­­­-lineage is preserved through Judah who fathers two sons, and  Joseph who keeps Israel alive through the years of famine.


Judah is deceived because he didn’t recognize Tamar. His blind sidedness, perhaps suggestive of his moral and spiritual “blindness,” turns the deceiver into a deceived and permits justice to be done.  When Judah does recognize his pledge, he not only recognizes the deception but comes to the moral recognition of his injustice and Tamar’s righteousness.

Since this episode is deemed to have occurred sometimes between the brother’s two trips to Egypt, and since, until the second journey to Egypt, we are given no hint at Judah’s change of character, it is possible that this episode marked a turning point in Judah’s moral conversion. The artistic quality of the irony in this fateful twist of events is exceptional. The deceiver turned into a deceived eventually becomes the slave seller[4] turned into a slave substitute.[5]

Just as Tamar could deceive Judah because of his failure to recognize her in harlot garments, Joseph can deceive his brothers because they fail to recognize him in linen garments. By their response to a series of unfortunate circumstances, Tamar and Joseph turn around the projected destiny and ensure that Messiah’s forerunners bring about the necessary premises for the fulfillment of the messianic lineage prophecy.[6] Tamar gives life to the sons of Judah, thus keeping alive the lineage leading to the Messiah, while Joseph keeps alive the household of Israel (including Judah’s sons) during a famine threatening their extinction.

Thus, through a skillful play on the motifs of deception, recognition, and life, these interconnected stories of fateful twists and turns ultimately prove the preservation of Messiah’s lineage as prophesized.

Example 2: Mark 6

An intriguing intercalation is the account of John’s death in Mark 6:14-29, framed by the sending and return of Jesus’ disciples recorded in Mark 6:7-13 and 6:30-32. In an oversimplified summary of Thom Shepherd’s elaborate analysis of these stories,[7] I will summarize several similarities and contrasts between these stories that emerge from various narrative features.

Jesus is the moral leader who sends His disciples on an evangelistic mission. The disciples obey and go out roaming freely though villages (open space), preaching repentance. Herod is the immoral leader who sends John in prison and then to the tomb (closed spaces) because he preached repentance. While the disciples carry their mission in simple attire and without provision of food, Herod feasts lavishly in his palace and eventually even gets John’s head on a platter.

The similarities and contrasts between the two stories hint at the future outcome of Jesus and his disciples preaching repentance: unrepentant audiences would kill the rebuking preachers. Just as John was killed because he preached repentance, so would Jesus, and eventually His disciples, be killed for preaching repentance. Thus,

[John is] a prophet that goes before Jesus in a preaching mission and into death. The apostles, on the other hand, are the followers of Jesus who come after him in mission and in death.[8]

These stories show that “mission is not without a cost, [… but] it involves a cross,”[9] and faithful followers of God’s call will bear it to the end.

Example 3: Mark 3

Another intercalation Shepherd observes is Mark 3:22-30–the controversy between Jesus and the scribes–framed by Mark 3:20-21 and 3:31-35 where Jesus’ family seeks to rescue him from social embarrassment.[10] Here Jesus is in conflict with two parties who represent his closest ties (family) and his fiercest enemies (the scribes). Ironically, these otherwise fairly different groups, present a striking similarity in the fact that each brings a charge to Jesus: his relatives think “He is crazy” (3:21), and the scribes think “He has Beelzebub” (3:22) or “an unclean spirit” (3:30). Both parties are portrayed in a negative light, and both are “countered by an authoritative word from Jesus.”[11]

The key word “house” is present in both stories. In the outer story, Jesus is in a house with the multitude, while his family is on the outside. In the inner story, Jesus invokes the “house motif” in two parables as He answers the scribes. While His blood relatives have yet to enter the “house” of God’s kingdom (3:33-35), the scribes prove to belong in the house of Satan which they accuse Jesus of being part of (3:28-30). Both parties are at odds with God’s true family and house, yet Jesus yields to neither pressure nor rebuke from either party. Instead, He stands firm in preaching the will of God as ultimate proof of membership in His household.

Let’s Practice!

While intercalations are not very frequent in Scripture, look at the surrounding context and see whether Genesis 37:12-36 is either framed by or is a frame to an intercalated story. If it is, note the common themes, and try to understand why the author might have placed the related story at these junctions in the overall narrative of Joseph’s life and of the book of Genesis.

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.

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



[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011).

[2] Ibid., p. 10.

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] See Genesis 37: 36-37.

[5] See Genesis 44:18-34.

[6] Micah 5:2, Luke 3:23-34.

[7] Tom Shepherd, Markan Sandwich Stories (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1993), p. 172-209.

[8] Ibid., p. 183.

[9] Ibid., p. 194-5.

[10] Ibid., p. 111-138.

[11] Ibid., p. 122.

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About the author


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.