Getting to know those who came before us: How to Study a Biblical Character

Main picture: Moses crossing the red sea

Introduction

The pages of the Bible are filled with a variety of characters. The main character is… God Himself. Sometimes He is in center stage – and sometimes He is not mentioned directly at all, but it is clear nonetheless that He is there. The authors of scriptures always refer to Him not only as a character inside the story, but as the One who is directing the story – the scriptures are His word, the book that tells us about Him. The biblical authors saw everything in relation to Him. The characters they present are described therefore in ways that relate in the end to Him, and not necessarily to their political or social standing.

The goal of this article is to give some guidance to those interested in focusing on a certain character from the Bible, and in understanding what is written about him and what lessons the biblical text wants to teach us through its description, or descriptions, of this character. An in-depth look into the life of a biblical character could be for our enjoyment, and beyond this what we learn from these characters can challenge us, instruct us, and guide us on a personal level. We should remember and adopt what the apostle Paul wrote, that whatever is written in scripture about different people was also written for us as an example for our lives (1 Cor. 10:6,11). With this approach, we would recommend you to not only do research in order to satisfy your curiosity and understanding, but to turn to God in prayer, to ask from Him wisdom to learn from the story of the character you have chosen.

There are many thought-provoking characters in the Bible. Some suggestions for character studies would be, from the Old Testament: Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Miriam, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Ruth, Samuel, Saul, David, Ahab, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Esther, Nehemiah; from the New Testament: Simon Peter, John son of Zechariah, John son of Zebedee, Miriam the mother of Yeshua, Paul, and of course – Yeshua Himself.

 

Step 1: Character in context

It is of utmost importance to understand the character in its proper context. What does that mean? We might be able to depict different images of a character that appears in scriptures, and perhaps we can even get a good grasp of some aspects of his personality or story. We may be able to base this understanding on various verses from here or there in order to describe in detail some aspect of his life. But it is critical to understand initially how the scriptures describe this person in general – how is he displayed in the context in which he is written about? After we see how the scriptures depict him, we can more easily determine if the personality trait of the character that we were interested in, actually reflects the character as he is described in scripture.

Therefore – the first step of our study is to try and understand how the scriptures display this character.

1.      Study the part(s) of the Bible in which the character is mentioned, and pay close attention to the following things:

        What details are written about this character? For example: looks, family details, social standing, age, etc.

        Is the character described positively or negatively?

        What kind of relationship does the character have with God? (How does the character relate to God, and how does God relate to the character?)

        With whom does the character interact? What kind of relationship does the character have them? (Familial, friendship, or formal; good, bad, or neutral)

        Is this character the main character of the story, or a side character?

        What function does this character have in the story and what can we learn from it?

        What is this character involved with, what does he do, what are his actions?

        Are the feelings and emotions of this character mentioned? If so, what are they?

Make sure to check these details in all of the parts of the story:

a.     The first time this character appears in the scriptures.

b.     During the plot of the story.

c.     The final reference to this character.

The benefit of looking into these details throughout the length of the story is that it enables us to see the big picture. In this way we can also be aware of how he goes through change – for good or for bad – or if no change occurred.

You can make use of Table 1 in order to summarize what you have found. If there are additional details that you have found about the character, that don’t have a place in the table, then feel free to add them as well.

2.     It is possible that what is written about the character you have chosen to study appears in multiple sections of the same book. It would be interesting and important to see what happens to the character after the break in reference to him or her. Is this simply a continuation from the same point that the previous section left off at? What changes in the character’s personal status, or of the surrounding situation, have happened since the previous section? What happens in the section in between the sections in which the character is mentioned?
If this is the case for the character that you have chosen to study, read the different sections that deal with him, and also what comes in between, and make note of the aforementioned questions. You can also make use of Table 2 in order to summarize the findings.

3.     Perhaps the story of your chosen character appears in more than one book (for example: there are biblical characters that are mentioned in 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings, and also in 1/2 Chronicles. Or the four Gospels that describe Jesus’ life in slightly different ways.) In this case, we are not talking about later references to the character but rather varied presentations of the character’s story.  If this is the case, then read the different presentations of the character in each book in which he appears. Turn again to the questions that appeared above in part 1. Does the additional book display the continuation of the character’s story? Or does it draw him in a different light or present him from a different perspective? Think about what can be learned from the entirety of these different presentations of the character. You can make use of Table 2 in order to summarize the findings.

4.     Think about all the things that you have found about the character you chose. Did changes take place in his life or in his personality? What brought about these changes?

In Table 2 you will also find space to summarize the changes that occurred in the character related to the other previously mentioned elements (maybe his or her relationship with God changed; maybe his or her personal situation changed, for example, in the case of a woman, that she didn’t have children in the beginning of the story but eventually children were born).

 

 

Step 2: Focus and Points of View

a.     Focus

There are biblical characters of whom a lot is written in the Bible. In a situation like this it might be worthwhile to consider focusing in on a certain portion of the character’s life. It’s worthwhile to initially read all of it once or twice in order to grasp the big picture. Afterwards it is possible to focus in on one part of the character’s life. A prime example of a character like this would be David, or the apostle Paul.

Even if you don’t want to focus on a certain part of the character’s life, it is worthwhile nonetheless, after a broad reading of the character’s life, to choose certain sections to delve deeper into. One way to do this is to investigate the different “points of view” that are present in the story.

b.     Points of view

In addition to reviewing all of the different elements of the character’s life that you discovered in the previous step, it would be worthwhile to return and read the stories in another way – a way that could add depth to your understanding.

The biblical narrative isn’t two-dimensional – but three-dimensional! The story is told not only from the point of view of the author. In fact, in the Bible, the author (like authors in most narrative literature) is the authority that informs us of what he sees worthy of informing us. But he does this by means of employing different perspectives or points of view. The point of view through which we as the readers get to experience the occurrences and the characters of the story is not uniform, but rather changing. Sometimes we get to look through the point of view of the author as the storyteller, sometimes through the eyes of one of the characters, and sometimes from the perspective of God. Of course, the biblical authors always wrote with the awareness of the fact that God is not only the main character in the story (even when there is not a direct reference to Him) but that He is always found above the story, as the ultimate authority, giving direction and purpose. When we learn to become more perceptive to these changes in point of view, we can begin to see the story three-dimensionally.

Sometimes the point of view is revealed through the words of the characters, and sometimes it is hidden in the story, and we have to search for it.

When thinking about points of view, we need to take two sets of perspectives into consideration:

1.     The points of view of the different characters that are a part of the narrative.

An example of a story that is full of different points of view expressed in the words of the characters is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The story is told by the author. But in the story, we see things from the points of view of different people: of the Israelites (v.25), of David (vv.26, 29, 34-37, 45-47), of King Saul (vv.33, 38), and of Goliath (vv.8-10, 42-44). In this story, the points of view are actually expressed through the words of the characters. In this way the story allows us to “step into their shoes” and to see the same situation from different points of view. The entirety of this adds much to the illustration of the story and the enrichment of our understanding of the different characters involved.

2.     The points of view of all those connected with the story in their different ways (the characters inside the story, the narrator, the author, the reader).

Points of view don’t only belong to the characters that are a part of the narrative. The author is writing in order to communicate to us, the readers. He is able to give us the exact information that he wants, in the order that he decides, and in the way he desires. If so, the author has determined what the reader (you and I) will get to see at each stage of the story. As such, there are practically three points of view, or levels of understanding, in each stage of the story: that of the author (who in the world of the story, like God, already knows all but who, in the Bible, tells us the story knowing that God does, in fact, know all); the point of view of the characters in the story, each one knowing only partially from his or her point of view; and the point of view of the reader, who really only knows what the author has decided to reveal in each stage of the story. It is interesting to see in each story the differences and similarities between, and maybe even the unity of, these three points of view.

An example of reading in this manner is given to us by the Israeli literary critic Meir Sternberg, in his discussion of the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebecca:[1]

Positions and Discrepancies Established

Genesis 24:1-9

The different points of view:

a.     of the author (and of God) – complete knowledge. He knows in what direction everything is going and also the process by which the events develop.

b.     of the characters in the story (Abraham, and his servant) – limited knowledge. These characters are embedded in the reality of the events and of time, separated completely from the supernatural viewpoint but also discovering gradually God’s control.

c.     of the reader – whose situation is between that of the author and that of the characters of the story. The text allows the reader to see God’s control and to expect the final outcome. But there is enough that the reader does not know in order to cause interest, and to allow a demonstration of God’s sovereignty to be worked through human agencies throughout the story.

The Movement from Divergence to Convergence of Perspectives

Genesis 24:10-27

Here the perspectives of the reader and of the character in the story (Abraham’s servant) come closer and closer until they meet. The author ensures this by firstly letting the reader gain information about the young woman who comes to the well (vv.15-16) that is given only afterwards to Abraham’s servant. As the story advances, the servant, who saw the events happen step by step, discovers what the reader already knows, and in this way the points of view are merged in a way that allows the reader to understand the servant’s gradual advance in the story, and to appreciate him. But the reader and the character advance at different rates towards the perspective that author wants to present, which is the sovereignty of God, the understanding that He is above all and works in all.

New Tensions and Final Resolution

Genesis 24:28-52

The words of Abraham’s servant include three subjects: 1. The material blessing of Abraham, 2. The familial connection, 3. The divine plan. All of this, throughout the servant’s not-so-perfect quoting of Abraham, in which he misses some details and enhances others, in order to convince Abraham’s pagan family members to give him Rebecca. Through this dialogue, all those involved (including the reader) are now aware of the process that shows the supremacy of God.

 

Here is a suggestion for a way to read in order to understand the different points of view:

Read the story of the character you have chosen (and if there is a lot of material, then choose select parts of the story).

Write:

        How do others in the story see the character?

        How do others in the story see his situation?

        How does the character see the others?

        How does the character see the situation?

        Are there additional points of view in the story? (Author? God?)

        How many details does the author reveal to us, as readers, about the character and about the situations that he is in? What, in your opinion, does the author want to say through the information that he gives and the information that he refrains from giving?

Summarize what you learn from the different points of view:

a.     about the character you’ve chosen

b.     about the other characters in the story

c.     about the situation(s) that the character is in

d.     about God.

 

Step 3: References to the character in other parts of the Bible

In steps 1-2, we referred to places in scripture that tell the story of the character you have chosen to study. In this step, we will check additional places in the Bible that refer to this character.

Check in a concordance, where else the name of the character is mentioned. In what way do they reference him?

Make a list of places in which the character is mentioned, and take note:

        What is said about him?

        Who mentions him? Is it the author, God, or a different character?

        Is the character mentioned in a positive or a negative light?

        Are we given new details about the character? If so, what are they? How do they add to our understanding of him?

        What can we learn from the way the character is presented?

 

Step 4: Interpretative tools

Until now, you have used only the Bible itself (and a biblical concordance). Hopefully, you have come to an understanding of how the Bible displays and describes your character of choice. At this stage, it would be worthwhile to take a look at other literature. Sometimes other people have noticed something that we missed. Many times, there is some historical background, some linguistic detail, that we might not have known about that can help us to better understand that way that the Bible shows us this character (of course this can be true about any subject in scriptures). Since we have already read and studied by ourselves, what the scriptures has to say, you can read from some other literature and judge for yourself if what they have to say fits with what you have found to be written in the Biblical text. In any case, it can be worthwhile to be helped by others’ writings to clarify, fix, and help our understanding of the scriptures.

 

Step 5: Application

Now, after we have learned how the scriptures present your character of choice, and what they have to say about him or her, you can write down the different things that touch you personally. What can you learn from this character and from his or her experiences? How do the things written in the Bible affect you?

Make a list of things that you have learned from the reading and study of the character you have chosen and have a personal effect on you. You can use the following questions if you want (and add any others that come to mind):

        What changed in the life of the character (for good or for bad)? Are there similar issues in my life that need to change?

        What brought about these changes, and what can I learn from that?

        If nothing changed… why?

        What positive characteristics does the Bible relate about the character? (in relation to God, to family, to others)

        What negative characteristics does the Bible relate about the character – characteristics that we need to be wary of?

        What can I learn from the story about God?

 

We hope that this guide will be helpful for you in your personal study and wish you enjoyment and discoveries that will be significant in your own life.

 


[1] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, (1985), 1987. pp. 131-152.

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