Follow-up: Writing the Bible

Having my adult students add 350 words to an existing biblical narrative proved a tremendous success in terms of inspiring close readings of, and imaginative engagement with, the details of the text at hand.

In an earlier post, I speculated about a possible assignment in which students would write a sequel, or prequel, to a thorny biblical narrative. Here is the assignment as eventually described to the students (who, in this course, are lay people seeking degrees suited to varying lay pastoral ministries):

The Rape of Tamar, and “Writing the Bible”: 350 words.

Read 2 Sam 13:1–22. Read it again with care, attending to the ways in which the narrator accomplishes characterization and plot. Get an understanding of the narrative in its details.

Imagine that you have the opportunity to add 350 (contiguous) words to the story: either right before it, or right after it, or at a single location inside of it somewhere. Imagine what task(s) might you want to accomplish with these words. Do you want to settle down problems, or highlight them? Produce justice, or underscore injustice? Explain things that seem unclear, or confuse things that seem clear? Defend particular characters, or condemn them?

Remember that you’re writing a narrative: give the characters things to say, things to do, ways to interact with one another. Don’t just fill it all with the sonorous pronouncements of an all-knowing, external narrator.

You don’t get to delete any part of the biblical text, only add material: up to 350 words, all written continuously, either right before, right after, or somewhere within the story.

Finally: in keeping with the tenor and devices of the surrounding narrative: you don’t get to give God an active part or a speaking role. Characters may refer to God, but only human beings are explicitly active, speaking parts in the story.

In your post, use some device to show where your words fall with regard to 2 Sam 13:1–22.

One student created a childhood relationship between Amnon and Tamar to serve as background to the rape story. Another allowed Tamar to confront David for his negligence and speak an oracle against him. One of them allowed Tamar to take revenge by slipping a male beggar into a drunken Amnon’s bed. Several of them added layers of double-cross to the political machinations in the background of the story.

The students did a simply amazing job with the assignment. I was all the more surprised because we have not discussed narrative criticism, yet they worked skillfully with different ways of accomplishing characterization, with using time, and with plotting. Since I have not really been happy in the past with my ability to teach narrative criticism to introductory students, I think that from now on I will use this assignment as a “getting started” exercise in narrative criticism: by having them do this first, I can then use their own narratives as a resource for illustrating the elements of narrative.

[Follow-up: Writing the Bible was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/31. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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3 Responses

  1. This is inspired, man. I am going to shamelessly steal this.

  2. This is a great assignment, Brooke. I use some similar ones, such as:

    Rewrite Amos 1:3–2:8 as if Amos were a Mexican prophet who had come north to preach at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove (Orange County), California.

    Write a speech for Jahzeiah son of Tikvah (Ezra 10:15) to give in opposition to the proposal(s) made earlier in Ezra 10.

  3. This is so funny — just tonight I did a version of the same thing (or the reverse of the same thing) with my literature M.A. students: the class is on Milton, and we were looking at Book VII of Paradise Lost, in which Milton simultaneously hews incredibly closely to the KJV creation account (replicating whole passages word-for-word), while at the same time adding TONS of text that amounts, basically, to an amplification of the original.

    We wound up talking about why someone would do those two things together–and what the significance of what he adds is. Maybe the *real* answer is that he took a class with an assignment like yours!

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