~ EXCERPT: DRAMA IN SCRIPTURE ~
Exploring Bible Language
Alan and Margaret Fowler
Drama in Scripture
Drama is a very distinct form of literature that may be expressed in either prose or poetry. It describes events, whether real or fictional, in the form of words and actions that repeat these events as if they were actually occurring. Essentially drama is ‘action replay’ and for this reason uses direct speech. An appreciation of dramatic structure can help you recognize portions of God’s word that are written in dramatic form, and deepen your understanding of their meaning.
Obviously, one cannot always replay events exactly as they occurred because it would be impossible to re-create situations in every detail. Furthermore, if the events extended over a long period of time the dramatist would have to compress the action into a much shorter time-span by eliminating irrelevant words and actions.
The art of writing a drama therefore involves the selection of essential details of location and action, and the compression of time. This means that the dramatist, as distinct from the narrative writer, builds up the story using a sequence of ‘acts’ to re-create the most relevant events. Shakespeare, in his historical plays, creates vivid and penetrating pictures of the lives and characters of his subjects by re-enacting certain key events.
If confined to the action alone, a dramatist could have difficulty in conveying essential background information. For this reason, a play is often introduced by a prologue to provide information about the characters in the drama as well as the time and location of the action. In some cases, there may also be an epilogue to round off the story by giving details of subsequent events.
Since the art of the playwright is to compress as much as possible into a limited time, the words put into the actors’ mouths must be carefully chosen for maximum impact and may not necessarily be the words of everyday speech. The speeches in many of Shakespeare’s plays are poetry and have a quality and depth of meaning unlikely to be heard in real life.
Four features characterize drama:
- structure (i.e., prologue, dialogue and epilogue);
- direct speech;
- selection of key events; and
- time compression.
Of these features, direct speech is always present but the other devices may be present in varying degrees.
Have you considered my servant Job?
The book of Job is the most obvious example of drama in the Bible. We emphasize that regarding the book of Job as a play in no way diminishes its divine authority, nor do we suggest that Job was a fictional character. Drama can be a powerful means of communicating truth, and if God makes extensive use of poetry there is no reason why He should not use drama when appropriate.
Job and his friends lived in patriarchal times; the historical truth of the drama was accepted. (See Ezekiel 14:14 and James 5:11). The play is concerned with the problem of suffering and is based on the life story of a righteous man who was afflicted with terrible suffering.
The book has a typical dramatic structure with a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. The prologue and epilogue are written in prose whereas all the speeches in the dialogue are in poetry. This distinction is obvious when reading from modern versions.
After introducing Job, the prologue describes how an enemy of Job’s, called Satan (a Hebrew word meaning adversary), argued that Job was righteous only because of the benefits it brought him. This adversary is depicted as meeting God in a court of petition and suggesting that God should test Job by bringing calamity upon him (Job 1:11, 2:5). This scenario can be understood as a dramatic presentation of the challenge facing Job in the play.
The drama has three acts:
- a debate between Job and his three so-called friends;
- intervention by a young man, Elihu;
- God’s answer to the problem.
The literary structure of the book shows it is a drama in which the speeches have been crafted by a divinely inspired dramatist. The debate is highly structured; there are three rounds of speeches in which Job alternates with each of the three friends. No one speaks out of sequence, there are no interruptions and all the speeches are pure poetry featuring Hebrew parallelism throughout. Is it conceivable that these speeches could be the actual words of a debate between a sick man and his three visitors? Can we imagine a desperately ill man replying to his critics in the most elevated poetical language? The answer to these questions must be no, unless they were all directly inspired by God. But that suggestion is negated by the fact that in the epilogue God condemns the words of Job’s friends in the following words to Eliphaz:
My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)
God would certainly not inspire these men to speak falsehoods. It is much more likely that the speeches of the three friends are an inspired record of the false accusations that they made against him.
The drama continues with speeches by Elihu, leading to the intervention of God. It ends with an epilogue in which God comments on the characters, and recounts that Job was subsequently blessed with the restoration of his family and property.
The book of Job provides an important precedent: God has been pleased to reveal truths about suffering through an inspired drama. Are there other examples of this literary genre in other parts of the inspired record?
The Song of Solomon
Solomon’s Song of Songs presents some difficulties in interpretation. It could be regarded as a series of unconnected lyrics; but recurrent allusions to doves, watchmen, mountains and gardens, suggest that it should be understood as a whole.
If the book is a unity, it obviously has many of the hallmarks of drama. All except the title verse is written in direct speech; there are frequent changes of speaker—from singular to plural and from male to female; and there is interaction between the speakers with questions and answers.
So the Song of Solomon appears to be a poetic drama without an explanatory prologue and without speakers’ names. Several different reconstructions of the drama have been made by adding dramatis personae but none can be considered authoritative.
Over and above these literary considerations there is the question of the spiritual meaning of the book which is widely regarded as an allegory of the relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and the church (the bride). This aspect of the book will not be considered here because our purpose is only to point out that the Song of Solomon is another example of inspired drama.
The Temptation of Jesus Christ
The record of the temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 is a beautiful example of dramatic writing. It has all four features of this genre, namely: structure (prologue, dialogue and epilogue), direct speech, time compression and selection.
- Structure: The prologue to the temptation drama states that the event took place immediately after Jesus was baptized, when he was led by the Spirit of God into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is followed by a dialogue in three acts that summarizes the events of the forty days in the wilderness. After this we have a short epilogue informing us that the temptations ceased for a period and Jesus was strengthened by the ministration of angels.
- Direct Speech: The acts consist of dialogues written in direct speech. The devil in the drama could have been someone Jesus encountered in the wilderness making suggestions to Jesus as the serpent did to Eve in Eden. But this is very unlikely because there is no mountain from which the whole of the Roman world could be viewed. A more likely explanation is that the devil represents the inner voice of the human nature of Jesus, against which he had to battle all his life.
- Time Compression: The events of the forty days’ temptation are summarized in three short acts. The statement that Jesus was hungry after his forty-day fast is followed by the first temptation, to make bread out of stones. This has led some to suggest that the temptations occurred at the end of the forty days. But the first two verses (in both accounts) are introductory; they are a prologue in which Luke informs us that Jesus was tempted for forty days, during which he fasted. The essential features of that long ordeal are then compressed in masterly fashion into three short acts.
- Selection: The nature of the three acts of temptation encapsulate the major problems which Jesus encountered throughout his ministry. As the Son of God, he had been invested with divine power through the operation of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22 and 4:1). The three temptations related specifically to the possible misuse of his divine power.
In Act 1, Jesus was tempted to make bread out of stones—to use his powers to satisfy personal needs. He resisted with the reply that one does not live by bread alone but by every word of God. During his ministry Jesus must often have been hungry, but the only occasions when he used his power to create food were when he fed multitudes to whom he had first given the word of God.
In Act 2, he was taken to the top of a mountain from which he could see the whole world (i.e., the Roman empire). He was reminded that he had the power to overthrow Caesar. And with this knowledge came the temptation: why let yourself be crucified by the Romans when you have the power to rule the world now? This temptation became forcefully real when Peter vigorously denied the need for Jesus to suffer and be crucified. Recognizing the diabolical nature of the suggestion, Jesus turned on Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt 16:23 NRSV). These words echoed his reply to the second temptation (Luke 4:8).
In Act 3, Jesus was taken to Jerusalem and invited to throw himself from a great height; his survival would result in instant acclamation as the Messiah. Not long afterwards, he was confronted with just such a temptation when his fellow townsfolk in Nazareth tried to throw him from a nearby precipice. He faced a similar temptation yet again, when he was challenged to come down from the cross.
Each of the temptations was followed by a rejoinder in which our Lord quoted from the book of Deuteronomy. Thus, these three temptations represent the most powerful forces against which Jesus had to battle and three answers that show how Jesus used the sword of the Spirit-the word of God-to overcome these temptations.
The text of Luke’s account is re-arranged below to show the dramatic structure of the story of the temptation more clearly.
The Temptations of Jesus
A Drama in Three Acts
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished.
Act I—in the wilderness
THE DEVIL: If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.
JESUS: No! It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”
Act II—on a high mountain overlooking the whole world
THE DEVIL: I will give you authority over all these kingdoms, and the glory; for this has been given over to me and I can give it to anyone I wish. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.
JESUS: Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Act III —in Jerusalem on a pinnacle of the temple
THE DEVIL: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He has placed you in the care of angels, and on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
JESUS: Again it has been written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The suggestion that the account of the temptation is a drama does not imply that Jesus actually travelled outside the wilderness of Judea. All the temptations can be viewed as representations of the conflicts in the mind of Jesus.
The Song of Deborah
The Song of Deborah is an epic poem celebrating the victory of the Israelites over the Midianites. In it, a mini-drama records an imagined conversation between the mother of the slain Sisera and her handmaidens.
The mother of Sisera looked through the window,
And cried out through the lattice,
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarries the clatter of his chariots?”
Her wisest ladies answered her,
Yes, she answered herself,
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoil:
To every man a girl or two;
For Sisera, plunder of dyed garments,
Plunder of garments embroidered and dyed,
Two pieces of dyed embroidery for the neck of the looter?” (Judg 5:28-30 NKJV)
For sheer pathos this is unequalled; it demonstrates the power of poetic drama.
The Samaritan Opposition
The vision in Zechariah 3 is another example of a dramatic presentation. It portrays events relating to the Samaritan opposition to the rebuilding of the temple. In this little drama there is the angel of the Lord, with Joshua the high priest on his left and Satan on his right. Satan represented the Samaritan opposition to the Jerusalem temple. Joshua, clothed in filthy garments, represented the Israelites who had adopted heathen religious practices. The drama presents the events described in Ezra 6: the Samaritans were severely rebuked and threatened with capital punishment and the Israelites “separated themselves from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord.”
The above examples show how being on the lookout for dramatic structures can enhance your appreciation of the Bible’s message.
From Exploring Bible Language
by the late Alan and Margaret Fowler
2020 Edition Available