Narrative Structure

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler



Lecture #19:

Narrative Structure




            Every story has a structure, a basic skeleton upon which an assortment of facts is arranged, a framework upon which the plot is woven. Without this, it would be impossible to create logical continuity and it would be impossible to follow the development of the narrative.  Without this structure, a narrative would be a collection of lists of facts, rather than a story.


When analyzing biblical narrative structure, we must differentiate between two types. On the one hand, we may talk about the plot structure, a structure that arranges the different scenes of the story one after another with continuity of time and causality.  A structure such as this exists in every story, although it may take different forms.  On the other hand, there is sometimes an artistic structure as well hidden within the narrative, in which the various episodes of the story are organized in a unique way, encouraging the reader to make surprising connections between different scenes and different facts.  A structure such as this is not recognized by every reader, and every storyteller must decide whether to present the story through the artistic structure as well.


            Hidden messages of the narrative are expressed in both structures, but particularly through what we have described as the artistic structure. We will dedicate the bulk of our analysis to this type of structure, but let us first examine the plot structure of biblical narrative.


The Five Stages


            Aristotle noted that there are five basic stages that shape all narratives,[1] and biblical narrative is not divergent in this respect from any other story. 


1.            Exposition: At the beginning of the story, the verse presents the central characters and mentions facts that are integral for the development of the story. For the most part, the exposition comes at the opening of the story, even if at times certain characters or their traits may be mentioned only later (delayed or distributed exposition).[2]


2.            Rising Action: This is the stage at which the story begins to get complicated; the harmonic equilibrium is broken because of some problem that turns into the focus of the story. From now on, the narrative develops on the basis of the characters’ attempts to overcome the entanglement presented at this stage. 


3.            Climax: Also known as the turning point, this is the stage in which the plot starts to move toward the direction of the anticipated resolution of the complication. 


4.            Falling Action: The shift of the previous stage is fully realized, as the entanglements are resolved in an open and final way.


5.            Conclusion: At the end of the story, the characters return to their state of equanimity, as they were at the beginning, before the complications arose. 


            It is important to emphasize that the five acts or stages are an ideal, theoretical structure that are not always fully realized. In his discussion of these five stages, Frank Polak writes:


Not every story is formulated according to them.  In the plot structure, they are found in their potential state, but not every narrator fully realizes them in the narrative tapestry and the verbal network.[3]


Nevertheless, many stories, including biblical narratives, are built according to this general process.


            The stage of the conclusion often brings the reader to the tranquility that characterized the story at its beginning, at the stage of the exposition. This often creates a narrative framework is created in which the exposition (A) parallels the conclusion that resolves the story (E). Needless to say, there is also an internal connection between the stages of falling action (D) and rising action (B), as they represent a problem and its solution. 

            Naturally, the very presentation of these five stages already raises the possibility of the artistic structure that is customarily called concentric structure. In this structure, the limbs of the narrative are arranged in two halves that parallel each other, while in the middle the turning point of the story is found:


A.           Exposition




B.           Rising Action




C.           Climax


B1.   Falling Action


A1.   Conclusion




            We will discuss structure such as these in our coming analyses of artistic structure. At this point, I would like to focus attention on the fact that because the simple structure of a narrative is built on the five abovementioned stages, it carries within it the potential of concentric structure. At times, the initial reading of the story with awareness of the five-act structure can immediately reveal the hidden themes that the narrative carries beneath its surface.


The Return of Lot and His Property


            We will demonstrate this through the story of the rescue of Lot from the four kings (Bereishit 14).


A. Exposition: The story opens with a prolonged and dynamic exposition describing the background for the war, which sets four Mesopotamian kings against the five kings residing in the area of Sedom.[4] Finally, we are told (8): “And the king of Sedom went out, along with the King of Amora, the king of Adma, the king of Tzevoyim and the king of Bela — which is Tzo’ar.  They engaged them in battle in Emek Ha-siddim.


B. Rising Action: The point of complication in the narrative is when Lot is taken into captivity, together with the rest of the people of Sedom and their property, as the verse states (11-12): “And they took all of the property of Sedom and Amora and all of their food, and they went on their way/ And they took Lot and his property — the son of Avram’s brother — and they went on their way.”


C. Climax: The narrative shifts with Avraham’s pursuit of the four kings and his counterattack (15): “He divided his forces against them at night, he and his servants, and he struck them and pursued them as far as Chova, to the left of Damascus.”


B1. Falling Action: The verse does not stop with the description of Avraham’s victory; it goes on to stress the dénouement, in the form of the return of everyone and everything taken (16): “And he returned all of the property/ And also his brother Lot and his property he returned/ As well as the women and the people.”


A1. Conclusion: The resolution of the story and the tranquility it brings with it is expressed in the king of Sedom’s venturing forth to greet Avraham (17): “And the king of Sedom went out to greet him, after he returned from striking Kedarlaomer and the kings with him, to Emek Shaveh, which is Emek Ha-melekh (King’s Valley).”


It is easy to note the connections between the elements of the story. The king of Sedom goes out to war (A) confident about his impending victory, which stands in opposition to his venturing out to greet Avraham at the end of the story (A1), when it is clear that Avraham is the one who has succeeded in routing the four kings.  Seizing the property of Sedom along with Lot (B) evidently parallels their return (B1); the turning point of the story is Avraham’s involvement in the events, his pursuit and defeat of the four kings.


Even if we are not talking about a true artistic structure (because it relies essentially on the very opening of the plot), there are a number of hidden readings that arise from beneath the surface due to these associations.


We have already noted the ironic connection between the confident departure of the king of Sedom to Emek Ha-siddim in the beginning of the narrative and his obsequious departure to Emek Shaveh at the end of the story. The connection between the rising (B) and falling action (B1) is more interesting. Let us contrast the two parts of the narrative:


Rising Action — Taking (11-12)

Falling Action — Return (16)

And they took all of the property of Sedom and Amora and all of their food, and they went on their way.

And he returned all of the property/

And they took Lot and his property — the son of Avram’s brother — and they went on their way.

And also his brother Lot and his property he returned/


As well as the women and the people. 


            The description of the capture is divided into two phrases by the opening verb “And they took” (anaphora) and the concluding verb “and they went on their way” (epiphora). The two clauses are divided by topic: first, it is the property of Sedom and Amora which is taken captive, and afterwards the verse dedicates an additional clause to the main topic of the story — Lot and his property being seized.  at the stage of the dénouement in the narrative, when Avraham returns that which has been seized, the reader hears for the first time that not only the property of Sedom was taken, but also “the women and the people.” Only when we reach the stage of Avraham’s viewpoint does Scripture offer the information that women and men have been captured as well, and not just property. This implies a stinging criticism of Sedom’s culture in the narrative; from the point of view of Sedom, the great tragedy is the seized property, and only when Avraham joins the story do the abducted men and women come to the reader’s attention. 


            The surprising revelation of the abduction of the people of Sedom is echoed by the literary framework of the two first clauses in the description of the return of the captives: “And he returned all of the property/ And also his brother Lot and his property he returned.” The chiastic order of the facts in the verse (“And he returned… he returned”) gives the reader the impression of reaching the end of the list of what and whom has been rescued.[5] Lo and behold, after the deceptive resolution of the list, the verse adds: “As well as the women and the people.”  This structure seeks to surprise the reader and to stress the salient point in the narrative — human beings had also been seized, even if the powers that be in Sedom were only bothered by the loss of their property.


            In fact, Lot is subject to similar criticism. At the stage of entanglement, Lot’s capture is described in this way: “And they took Lot and his property — the son of Avram’s brother — and they went on their way.”  The mention of Lot’s property immediately after his name, even before the biographical information (“the son of Avram’s brother”) is extremely odd and demands an explanation.[6] It appears that we cannot separate between Lot and his property; as it were, the property is part of Lot’s name (grammatically) and the relationship of “the son of Avram’s brother” comes only after the identification of the corporate entity “Lot and his property.”


            In this context as well, as we compare the entanglement and the dénouement, we find the viewpoint of Avraham that changes the picture: “And also his brother Lot and his property he returned.”


The Book of Ruth


            Beyond the basic structure of dividing the narrative into five essential stages, one may examine the structure of the plot in terms of the internal development within it. In order to take note of the structure of the development of the plot, the reader must locate the central focus of the plot, around which the facts of the narrative are arranged and the dramatic tensions of the narrative are laid out. We will examine the Book of Ruth from this viewpoint.


            First, in the exposition, the reader encounters two tragedies that are intertwined: one is the national disaster — a heavy famine; the second is a family tragedy — the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons. These two catastrophes are deeply tied to the Scriptural worldview, and they are both tied to fecundity and fertility — agricultural fertility and human fertility. The story begins in a painful, tragic place of death and bereavement, and from this point the reader is invited to follow a complete journey by which the two catastrophes will be resolved.


            The solution of the national famine is provided at the end of the exposition:


And she arose, she and her two daughters-in-law, and she returned from the Fields of Moab, because she heard in the Field of Moab that God had taken account of His people to give them bread. (1:6) 


Nevertheless, the economic repercussions of the famine continue to bedevil the characters in the narrative because even after Naomi’s return to Beit Lechem, there is no one to support her. In chapter 1 of the book, as Rut joins Naomi on her journey, the matriarch indeed comes out of her isolation, but her words to her daughters-in-law stress even more dramatically the unreality of the hope for fertility (1:11): “Why should you go with me?  Do I have more sons within me who will become your husbands?”


            The next scene of the book — the encounter of Rut and Boaz in the field (chapter 2) — indeed solves the problem of the famine, because Boaz in his unique generosity showers kindness on Rut and even says (2:8): “Have you not heard, my daughter?  Do not go to glean in another field, and do not depart from this one.  Stay close here to my girls.” This solves one problem, but the family tragedy of Naomi is still in force — she has no seed and no way to continue the family line.  This problem is solved in the coming scenes — the scene at the granary and the scene at the city gate which follows it — as Boaz redeems Rut.  The joyous declaration rings through Beit Lechem (4:17): “A son has been born to Naami!”  This son continues the family line:


Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is God who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.  May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”


            The plot structure of the book stresses the connection between agricultural fertility and human fertility, a connection that emerges clearly in the scene that closes the story, the scene at the gate, where we talk about double redemption — redeeming Naomi’s field and redeeming Rut, “to raise up the name of the deceased upon his inheritance” (4:10).


            Alongside this plot structure, there may be artistic structures that present the narrative of Rut in a different way and emphasize other points.[7] Nevertheless, it is specifically in the simple structure of the plot that the reader discovers the fundamentals of the narrative, which weave the narrative into a flowing tale and unify the different stages of development.


The Book of Esther


            One may interpret the Book of Esther in a similar way.[8] The beginning of the narrative causes the reader to confront Esther, who enters the royal palace in Vashti’s place. In chapter 3, with Haman’s reaction to Mordekhai’s refusal to bow, the narrative splits into two parallel foci: the personal struggle between Mordekhai and Haman and the national fight between Haman and all of the Jews.  These matters are indeed intertwined, but in the context of describing the structure of the plot, it becomes clear that there are in fact two plots that can be followed separately. In chapter 4, Mordekhai convinces Esther to enter the king’s chamber in order to convince him to repeal the decree upon the Jews (the continuation of the national struggle). However, immediately after the first party that Esther makes for the king and for Haman, the narrative goes back to describing the personal struggle between Haman and Mordekhai, who obstinately maintains his refusal to bow to Haman, and in light of this Haman decides, at the advice of his friends and family, to ask the king to hang him upon a high gallows. Indeed, in chapter 6, immediately after the king recalls his being saved by Mordekhai’s actions, Haman comes to ask the king to hang Mordekhai, but before he can open his mouth, he is asked to take Mordekhai through the streets of the city on the royal steed.


                The bifurcation of the plot is particularly noticeable when Haman is hanged on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordekhai. There is no doubt that in this hanging, the personal struggle reaches its “happy” ending, a clear dénouement of the entanglement in the narrative, because there is nothing more fitting than the villain hoisted on his own petard, being hung on the very gallows designed for the hero: “He is sentenced to hanging, according to the sentence he imposed upon himself — on the gallows he prepared for his hanging.”[9]  However, it becomes clear that that the national plot continues to progress because of the complication (sending the letters of destruction) that has yet to be resolved. The plot therefore continues and progresses until, at the end, the Jews overpower their enemies and those who seek to harm them. 


            Just as in the Book of Ruth tracing the two foci of the narrative cycle forms a connection between them, so too in the Book of Ester, the very plot structure, which is built upon two parallel axes, encourages the reader to find a certain hidden connection between them. On the simple plot level, the link is clear: what fans the flames of Haman’s hatred for the Jews and starts the chain of events in which Haman seeks to destroy all of the Jews is the private struggle — Mordekhai’s refusal to bow down to Haman. However, at a deeper level, the integration of these two plots gives each greater meaning; even the private struggle of the two officers in the king’s court is cast in a national light. 


            In other words, Mordekhai goes beyond his personal identity in the narrative and comes to symbolize something broader. As he is from the tribe of Binyamin and it is implied that he is related to the family of Sha’ul (2:5), it appears that those commentators who claim that Mordekhai is a symbol of the kingship of Sha’ul are justified.[10]  Since Haman symbolizes Amalek in the narrative, we have in front of us a sequel to the war of Sha’ul against Amalek — a reparative act.  The justification for seeing the private struggle between Mordekhai and Haman as an echo of the ancient struggle between the monarchy of Sha’ul and Amalek is anchored in the varied literary tools that are utilized throughout the story.[11]  But for our purposes, it is my desire to stress the dual structure of the plot: the private level and the national level are intertwined in the narrative because the author of the book wants to explore the wider aspect of the private level as well, as the continuation of a larger national-historic narrative.


Beyond the structure that follows the flow of the plot, it is worth noting that there are other views that utilize the organization of the narrative structure in other ways. The two central approaches that have a significant contribution to understanding the hidden message of the narrative are structuralism, which looks for the deeper structure of a literary text, and form criticism, which claims that the narrative is organized according to the order of preordained ingredients by its literary genre.  We will deal with these two views in the next lecture.  After that, we will turn to our essential analytical focus — the artistic structure. 


Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch

[1]     S. Halperin examines this issue at length in “The Five-Act Structure of Drama: Incarnations from the Classical Era to the Renaissance,” Ha-sifrut 3 (5732), pp. 546-557.

[2]     We will deal with this in our series of lectures on “Factual Organization of the Narrative” (lectures #26-29).

[3]     F. Polak, Ha-sippur Ba-mikra (Jerusalem, 5759), p. 118.

[4]     Many commentators have struggled to grasp the significance of this long exposition, detailing the devastating rampage of the four kings on both sides of the Jordan. See, for example, R. Alter, Genesis (New York, 1996), p. 58. In my humble opinion, the view of M.D. Cassuto (“Bereishit” in Encyclopedia Ha-mikra’it vol. 2, pp. 328-9) is supported by the verses, as is R. Yoel Bin-Nun’s view in “‘Ha-Aretz’ Ve-‘Eretz Kenaan’ Ba-Torah,” Megadim 17 (5752), pp. 9-46.  They seek to tie this specific journey to the Jewish People’s journey to the Plains of Moab, as described in Devarim 2-3.

[5]     In the Septuagint, the order is slightly different: “And his brother Lot he returned, as well as his property, the women and the people.” According to this version, Lot’s property appears as part of the surprising appendix. Naturally, according to this version, the property is presented as ancillary and unimportant (from the viewpoint of Avraham) even more so than how it is presented in the Masoretic text.

[6]     Indeed, in order to make it easier for the reader, many translations, including the JPS and King James versions, alter the order of the sentence and put “son of Avram’s brother” next to “Lot.” Some modern critics alter the order of the sentence as well. For example, Hamilton translates: “They captured Lot, Abram's nephew, together with his belongings” (Genesis, [NICOT, Grand Rapids, 1990], p. 398).

[7]     There are a number of suggestions for the artistic structure of the Book of Ruth. My personal preference is for the chiastic structure. Those interested in delving into this approach are invited to peruse my article in the book dedicated to the memory of Ariel Raviv, who was killed in a training accident on 15 Iyar, 5761: “Mivneh Megillat Rut U-Mashma’uto,” in “El Asher Telekhi” — Iyunim Be-Megillat Rut (Jerusalem, 5762), pp. 49-63.

[8]     For a different approach, see R. Mordechai Breuer’s view in Pirkei Mo’adot (Jerusalem, 5746), pp. 600-14. R. Breuer wishes to present the book as having two aspects (bechinot) — the national and the private. Here, I do not claim that there are two bechinot per se, but rather one plot with two foci that are deeply tied to each other and that emerge one from the other.

[9]     R. M. Breuer, Pirkei Mo’adot, p. 608.

[10]    For example, A. Chakham, Esther (Da’at Mikra; Jerusalem, 5733), p. 14.

[11]    Among those who examine this are: G. C. Cohen, Iyunim Be-Chamesh Megillot (Jerusalem, 5766), pp. 317-21; W. McKane, "A Note on Esther IX and I Samuel XV," JTS 12 (1961), 260-1; C. A. Moore, Esther (AB; New York, 1971), p. 36-37.