Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors in Old Testament Exegesis

Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors in Old Testament Exegesis

by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

[This article was originally written for the Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 45, Spr 1983]  

As hermeneutics continues to occupy the foreground of biblical studies, it becomes increasingly apparent that evangelicals have neglected matters of great importance. One aspect of current discussions which certainly deserves more attention is the role of the reader in biblical interpretation. Well-intended attempts to safeguard biblical authority have led many conservative scholars to shrink back from exploring the implications of the hermeneutical circle.(1) Instead, emphasis has been placed on the receptive role of the reader and interpretation has been described as "essentially monological."(2) The Bible speaks; the reader simply listens. Yet, orthodox theological perspectives suggest that more attention should be given to the impact of the reader's historical circumstances, personality, beliefs, etc., on the interpretation of Scripture. The Reformed tradition, for instance, has emphasized the influential character of commitments and presuppositions in a number of ways.(3) The Bible itself discusses the decisive function of religious dispositions in reading and hearing the Word of God. In line with these traditional concerns, we may suggest that the interpretation of Scripture is better understood through a model which accounts for the impact of the reader. A dialogical model is needed which allows the reader to speak as well as listen. No one is able to approach the Bible tabula rasa.

Everyone understands Scripture from perspectives derived from his or her personal history. To be sure, distinctions must be made between proper and improper contributions from the reader. Moreover, the authority of the text must be maintained. Yet, a dialogical model helps to clarify many problems in biblical interpretation.

One area in which the role of the interpreter has been largely overlooked is exegetical methodology. Procedures in exegesis have surfaced primarily out of regard for the text, not the reader. The text has a certain vocabulary; that vocabulary must be studied. The text shows structure; that structure must be inspected. These and other techniques which are derived from the nature of the text are essential. Yet, attention must also be given to ways in which exegesis is influenced by the reader. Most students of the Bible are well equipped by theological training to make use of the more objective tools of exegesis but few are even aware of their more subjective accoutrements. Consequently, exegetical methodology must also insure that the reader be allowed to speak. It must point out ways of examination which both reflect the phenomenon of Scripture and facilitate the self-conscious participation of the reader.

This investigation will briefly outline and illustrate one dimension of a reader's influence on the interpretation of OT narratives. We will be concerned with intentions toward these biblical accounts. What may we properly intend to discover from such passages? How may we vary our approach toward OT stories? Poythress has explored closely related questions in helpful ways.(4) He distinguishes between the speaker's intentions, the content of the discourse, and the understanding of the audience. By this means he helps to clarify the goals of exegesis. In this study we will deal with additional ways in which readers may approach this speaker-discourse-audience trio.

There are three Christian convictions regarding the OT which point to a useful organization of intentions. They may be summarized as follows:

(1)       The OT is canon.

(2)       The OT is historical.

(3)       The OT is for believers.

Among all the Christian perspectives on the OT, these beliefs are broad enough to provide a heuristic model for the employment of intentions. Three ways of viewing OT narratives are identified by these convictions. The stories may be treated as pictures, windows, and mirrors.

The canonical character of the OT suggests that it be treated as a picture. Commitment to the OT as canon implies that it is received as authoritative, sufficient, and perspicuous. It calls for the reader to arrange his or her understanding of the text according to the canonical presentation. The integral relation of form and content is maintained through processes which have come to be called literary analysis.(5) The structure, style, rhetoric, characterization, etc., in a text are analyzed in ways closely analogous to appreciating the color, texture, balance, and line of a painting. Literary analysis is concerned with the portrait which the speaker intended to relate, the picture actually offered by the discourse, and the portrait received by the audience.

The historical quality of the OT points to the treatment of its narratives as windows. Word-revelation has been correctly characterized as an interpretation of historical act-revelation.(6) As a result, the text can function as a portal to events through historical analysis.(7) Literary form and thematic design become subservient to the reconstruction of historical events and periods. Readers seek to discover the historical information which the speaker intended to offer, which the discourse actually provides, and the audience understood. To be sure, the biblical portrait of events never contradicts actual history. Yet, the appreciation of a text as a literary picture is a different process from reconstructing historical events through the text as a window.

Finally, the relevance of the OT for the life of the believer provides us with the metaphor of a mirror. OT narratives are capable of reflecting the interests and topics of the believing community through thematic analysis.(8) Whether the topics originate in personal needs or in long-standing theological traditions, OT stories may be used to answer questions which are of interest to the reader. In thematic analysis readers intend to understand what the speaker wanted to say about a topic, what the discourse actually relates about it, and how the audience may have understood the theme.

These three approaches toward OT narratives may be outlined as follows:


Literary Analysis

What dramatic portrait did the speaker intend?

What picture does the discourse present?

What portrait may the audience have received?



Historical Analysis

What historical information did the speaker intend?

What historical information does the discourse present?

What historical information may the audience have received? 



Thematic Analysis

What did the speaker intend to say about the subject? 

What does the discourse say about the topic?

What did the audience understand about the theme? 


Each of these avenues is solidly based on Christian commitments and reflects ways in which the church has always treated the OT. Yet, the explicit recognition of these options can greatly benefit the interpreter. As these intentions are consciously pressed into service they provide insights of significant variety and thereby move the interpreter toward new and creative understandings of OT narratives.


Gen 12:10–20 is a well-known portion of the OT which illustrates the value of this triadic model. Failure to clarify the options for intentions has caused nearly every Protestant interpreter to follow the same approaches toward this text. A brief survey of commentaries from the left and right of the theological spectrum reveals that literary appreciation has been largely overshadowed by historical and thematic concerns. J. Skinner, for instance, comments historically that the "speech of Abram to his wife is an instructive revelation of social and moral sentiments in early Israel."(9) Moreover, he argues that the text 

is full of "ethical reflection" on the topic of Abram's lie.(10) G. von Rad is interested, on the one hand, with "the arrival of Asiatics in Egypt c. 1350," and with "the reported beauty of Sarai" at such an old age.(11) On the other hand, he is concerned with the theme of Yahweh's intervention and with the moral question of Abram's lie.(12) For both of these commentators, the text serves primarily as a window and a mirror. Conservative interpreters have examined the passage with similar intentions. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that the historical problem of Sarai's beauty can be solved by a comparison with Egyptian women, who were "generally ugly and faded early."(13) They also venture into the ethical problem and wonder how Abram "expected to save honor and retain possession of his wife."(14) More recently, D. Kidner tries to solve the problem of Sarai's beauty by arguing that the "key…lies with patriarchal life span."(15) His other interest is predictably with Abram "using one half of the truth to conceal the other."(16) In each case the primary, if not exclusive, concern has been with historical and thematic dimensions of the story. These reflections are legitimate and important but they ignore the text as a picture. Consequently, they leave untouched much that the story has to offer. A literary analysis of the pericope opens the way for understanding the story in ways which break with traditional approaches.

In order to illustrate the value of the self-conscious employment of intentions, we will examine Gen 12:10–20 as a literary picture. This literary analysis will entail two basic steps. On the one hand, an intrinsic inquiry will be made. The discourse itself will be examined without reference to a specific speaker or audience. On the other hand, an extrinsic inquiry will be pursued. The narrative will be viewed from the vantage points of the speaker and audience. By this means it will become apparent that the interpretation of this narrative can be enhanced by a careful distinction of the reader's intentions.

Intrinsic inquiry into this story may begin with the placement of characters within the drama. When characters appear, they are placed into the action of the story and in relation with each other. Reappearance recalls their previous development and establishes them in new settings. Sequences of character concentration, therefore, may tend to have pivotal or summary significance in some story lines. The identification of significant characters in this story is not difficult. It begins with Abram (12:10 {Gen 12:10}); Sarai is introduced (12:10 {Gen 12:10}), along with the Egyptians (12:12 {Gen 12:12}), who are later incarnated as the court officials and Pharaoh (12:14 {Gen 12:14}). As the plot continues, Abram is given livestock and servants (12:16 {Gen 12:16}). Over halfway through the text, Yahweh appears (12:17 {Gen 12:17}) with a mention of all other characters and quickly leaves the scene. All the characters except Yahweh are recalled to the stage. Pharaoh, Abram, and Sarai meet and talk together (12:10–19 {Gen 12}). Finally, that trio, the court, and Abram's possessions are mentioned in the closing verse (12:20 {Gen 12:20}). (See figure 1.)

Figure 1

            Genesis 12:     10        11        12        13        14        15        16        17        18        19        20

            AbramX         X         X         X                     X                     X         X         X         X

            Sarai                X         X         X         X                                 X         X         X         X

            Officials                                  (X)      (X)      X                                 X                                 X

            Pharaoh                                   (X)      (X)      X                                 X         X         X         X

            Possessions                                                                             X                                             X

            Yahweh                                                                                               X

The significance of these observations becomes clearer when a few grammatical indicators of structure are brought into view. The early portions of the narrative seem to break down easily into four sections, each introduced by the marker wyhy. Verse 10 {Gen 12:10} opens the story in this manner. It occurs again in v 11 {Gen 12:11} and introduces Abram approaching Egypt's border (vv 11–13 {Gen 12}). In v 14 {Gen 12:14} it begins a description of events within Egypt, specifically the incorporation of Sarai into Pharaoh's house (vv 14–16a {Gen 12}). The last appearance of wyhy (wyhy lw) announces Abram's prosperity in Egypt (v 16b {Gen 12:16b}). After this point, the sections of the narrative are more difficult to distinguish. The verse division between 16b {Gen 12:16b} and 17 {Gen 12:17}, along with the punctuation of most English texts, tend to cause the reader to regard v 17 {Gen 12:17} as separate from v 16b {Gen 12:16b}. Yet, this understanding seems less than adequate. Every other occurrence of wyhy in the story has set the stage for successive action indicated by at least one consecutive verb. wynGu (v 17 {Gen 12:17}) functions in this way with v 16b {Gen 12:16b}. 

Vv 16b–17 {Gen 12}, therefore, present a contrast between the prosperity of Abram and the plagues on Pharaoh. The next sequence of the story begins with v 18 {Gen 12:18} and is indicated by the change of place, time, and explicit characters. Pharaoh confronts Abram and Sarai with their deception (vv 18–19 {Gen 12}). Without a doubt, v 20 {Gen 12:20} is to be closely associated with vv 18–19 {Gen 12} but the resumption of consecution after lengthy simultaneity (wysw) and the introduction of new characters gives it some degree of independence.


When the placement of characters are collated according to these divisions, the sequences of concentration become apparent. (See figure 2.)

Figure 2

                        I           II                     III                    IV                    V                     VI

            Genesis 12:     10        11-13               14-16a             16b-17             18-19               20

            AbramX         X                     X                     X                     X                     X

            Sarai                X                     X                     X                     X                     X

            Officials                      (X)                  X                     X                                             X

            Pharaoh                       (X)                  X                     X                     X                     X

            Possessions                                                                 X                                             X

            Yahweh                                                                       X


In the early verses characters appear slowly—one (I), two (II), and four (III) at a time—and the narrative increases accordingly in complexity and dramatic tension. Section IV collects all the characters with their previous narrative involvements and adds the sudden appearance of Yahweh. After the curse on Pharaoh, concentration drops significantly and only a select number of earlier events are recalled (V). In the end, however, the final verse mentions each repeated character once again (VI). By this means, the text discloses a continuity of thought and conceptual flow which can be easily discerned. I, II, and III raise the intensity of the story. IV is pivotal and places all the characters of the earlier sequences into a new context. V focuses on a portion of the preceding action and VI draws the story into a resolution of previous relationships. In this way the story may be described as accumulative.

In addition to the accumulative nature of the passage, there is also evidence of a symmetry which is conducive to the use of classical descriptions of dramatic flow.  

Verse 10 {Gen 12:10} (I) is the exposition and gives the context out of which the narrative grows. Abram goes to Egypt because of a famine and intends to stay there temporarily (Gwr). In balance with the beginning is v 20 {Gen 12:20} (VI), the denouement or final resolution. The poverty of famine is contrasted with the riches which Abram possesses as he completes his sojourn. Vv 11–16a {Gen 12} (II and III) contain the rising action. The plan to lie is carried through but it leads Sarai into Pharaoh's harem. This section is carefully balanced by the falling action of vv 18–19 {Gen 12} (V). Both portions are predominantly conversations and their correspondence in subject matter is indicated by the sharing of similar language—"You are my sister" (v 12 {Gen 12:12}) and "She is your sister" (v 19 {Gen 12:19}). Finally, the middle portion of vv 16b–17 {Gen 12} (IV), the turning point of the story, forms a skillful interlocking of perspectives. Abram prospers but Pharaoh is cursed. These verses both foreshadow future action and reflect on the previous events of the story. On the one hand, v 16b {Gen 12:16b} anticipates what will happen to Abram; he will gain many riches from the Egyptians. On the other hand, v 17 {Gen 12:17} is a decisive handling of the problems which rose "because of Sarai" (v 17 {Gen 12:17}). In this way, the turning point of the drama looks forward and backward, thus adding to the balance.

With these considerations in mind the dramatic flow may be summarized. Abram intends to sojourn in Egypt. He wishes to protect himself during his stay by lying about Sarai. His plan succeeds in part but it is foiled by the abduction of Sarai. In order to move toward resolving this difficulty, Yahweh distinguishes between Abram and Pharaoh. Abram grows rich but Yahweh sends plagues on Pharaoh. The curse on Pharaoh begins the process of freedom for Sarai and the return to Palestine. The plan to complete the sojourn is furthered when she is given back and is completed when Abram leaves Egypt in safety with Sarai and all the possessions given to him by the Egyptians. The problem of the story is Abram's inability to complete the sojourn; the problem is resolved by the intervention of Yahweh and the subsequent departure from Egypt.


The implications of this brief intrinsic inquiry are far too numerous to name them all. Yet, two directions of thought seem appropriate to mention at this point. First, intrinsic analysis has set each portion of the story into the context of the whole narrative. Each part is an integral facet of the narrative world and removal of one section would drastically change the drama. This observation restrains the tendency of interpreters to move quickly to the identification of a center or central theme in the story. As noted above, one typical pattern of interpretation of this passage has been to focus on the ethical questions rising from Abram's lie. When, however, Abram's deception is placed within the movement of the whole narrative, it defies all attempts at making it the most important element of the story in an objective sense. Even von Rad's insistence that Yahweh's intervention is the center fails to allow other portions (e.g., the increase of Abram's wealth, the return to Canaan, etc.) to maintain their prominence. One item may be more significant than another to a reader at any given time but that value rests in the reader, not the text. Intrinsic inquiry calls upon the interpreter to look at the whole passage and to avoid isolating one item as more essential to the story than others.


Second, as an integrated pericope the passage can be handled in summary fashion rather than in segments. Historical and thematic analyses often dissect a narrative into its parts and never return to the whole. Intrinsic analysis brings the whole passage into view and offers it as the conceptual unit to which questions of meaning and relevance may be put. In this case the movement of famine/sojourn/captivity/return can easily become the focus of further reflection. It anticipates other portions of Scripture and realities in the life of faith. By drawing attention to the content of the whole story, theological contemplation will find material which is often ignored in other approaches. The disclosure of this larger perspective is another benefit of intrinsic inquiry.

Extrinsic inquiry into this passage faces some difficulties. When dealing with the Pentateuch, the identification of the speaker and audience is complicated. Apart from questions regarding the diachronic development of the text, the identification of the writer and audience of the story as it stands is difficult to determine with certainty. If E. J. Young is to be taken seriously when he says that "there may have been later minor additions and even revisions" of the Pentateuch,(17) then it is insufficient to interpret this passage solely from the point of view of Moses and the exodus audience. A broader field is more in line with what we know about the book of Genesis. Consequently, in this article two sets of extrinsic agents will be adopted. In line with ancient traditions, Moses in the exodus will be the earliest perspective. In addition, the story will be viewed from the perspective of a late exilic or post-exilic setting, the date of the latest possible revision. The question is not whether the narrative as we have it was actually written by or for the agents; both seem feasible from evangelical presuppositions. It is rather how the text may be understood if it is set in the suggested contexts. By following this procedure, the ability of the text to speak to a variety of circumstances will become evident.

This narrative may be easily connected with Moses in the exodus. It has already been observed that the pericope is not a "candid camera" record of an event in Abram's life. It exhibits intentional selectivity and shaping with highly theological purposes. When consideration is given to the experiences of Moses recorded in Exodus and their correspondence to Gen 12:10–20, it becomes apparent that Moses expressed these events in Abram's life in such a way as to make them parallel the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Abram sojourned in Egypt because of a famine in Canaan; a famine drove Jacob and his sons into Egypt for food. Deception was characteristic of Abram; Joseph's brothers are known for their lies. While in Egypt, Abram prospered but his hope for a progeny was fading because Pharaoh had taken Sarai; Israel increased in number in Egypt but slavery and the slaughter of male infants presented a threat to posterity. A line was drawn between Abram and Pharaoh by the blessing and cursing of Yahweh; the intervention of Yahweh in the exodus protected the Israelites but brought plagues on Pharaoh. Freedom came through open confrontation between Pharaoh and Abram; Moses and Pharaoh had numerous verbal encounters until the king finally said, "Go!" Abram left in safety and riches; Israel was sent away with many Egyptian goods. From these parallels between the exodus and the Abram story, it appears that Moses intended to use this story as a paradigm by which the Israelites could be taught the reasons for, the nature of, and the certainty of departure from Egypt and return to Palestine. In Egypt, along the way, and on the border of the promised land, Moses faced much disbelief and discouragement among the tribes. By relating a portion of patriarchal history in this form, he presented a relevant word to the travelers. One can imagine Moses commenting, "Do not give up! No mistake has been made. What you are going through has already been experienced by your father Abraham. Follow him away from Egypt and rejoice in the power of Yahweh!" Similarly, it is not difficult to hear the faithful among the tribes responding, "Abraham's exodus is our exodus!"

If the same story is placed within a late exilic or post-exilic setting it functions in ways similar and dissimilar to a Mosaic situation. It should be remembered that whether this pericope was formed at this time or not is irrelevant to this project. Whatever the actual time of final composition may be, the story certainly spoke to Israel in these generations. Prophetic speech had already interpreted return from exile as a second exodus. As a result, the parallels existing between the two events provide an understanding of the passage similar to that of the wilderness setting. Nevertheless, there are significant differences. It was Abram's fear of foreign powers which led him to distrust Yahweh's power to protect him. His infidelity ended in captivity in another land; it was Judah's fear of foreign authorities which eventually led to exile in Babylon. Yahweh intervened on the behalf of Abram; he did so for Judah as well. Abram left for Palestine with the riches of Egypt; the exiles returned freely to the land of promise and were given funds from the Babylonian treasuries. When the passage is seen from this perspective, attention is drawn toward Yahweh's faithfulness despite Abram's failure. One can imagine the announcement, "We failed just as Abram did but Yahweh has redeemed us." It is also easy to hear the words which surely followed, "Let us never distrust him again."

This literary analysis of Gen 12:10–20 has been severely limited in its scope. Nothing has been said of suspense, irony, and sarcasm, which are discernible in the story and add to its dramatic quality. Its setting within the larger context of Genesis has been left untouched. These and other aspects would certainly enrich what has been done here. Nevertheless, the analysis has provided a point of view on the text which to my knowledge has been largely overlooked by interpreters in the past. Consequently, it suggests that other narratives should be examined in ways which have been ignored. Moreover, it offers a basis upon which another style of exegetical production can be built. A sermon, for instance, which focuses on the conclusions of the preceding analysis would be rich in newness and power. Abram's exodus is the exodus of the church of Christ. Abram's return from exile is our return in Christ. Literary analysis of passages which have been examined only for history and themes offers a marvelous prize: the discovery of the new in words which often seem so old.

As conservative OT scholarship investigates the dynamics of interpretation it is certain that more concern will need to be shown toward the impact of the reader on the process. It has been pointed out here that readers may freely intend to treat the text as a picture, window, or mirror in exegesis. Yet, much more needs to be said about each of these intentions. How does each approach operate? How may they be integrated with each other? Beyond questions of intention are the many other aspects of a reader's personality and history which affect interpretation. To be sure, these topics are complex and no model will be entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless, as small efforts are made to clarify minute portions of the subject, readers will become increasingly aware of the contributions which they make to the interpretation of the Bible. Hopefully, such self-awareness will reveal the need for every interpreter to insure that the OT is not only approached with highly polished exegetical skills but also with hearts and lives in harmony with the God whose Word it is.